§ Question again proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
§ Mr. STRAUSS
I was asking the Parliamentary Secretary if he could tell us how it is possible to fix maximum prices for London whereby traders in the West End may be able to continue to deal at fair prices for that area and yet retailers in the poorer districts not encouraged to charge unreasonable and outrageous prices to their customers? I shall be glad if he can give me any indication as to what the Board of Trade propose to do in that respect. By far the most important part of the Bill is the attempt to prevent a shortage of foodstuffs. As I listened to the President of the Board of Trade it seemed to me that the right hon. Gentleman did not consider the situation as serious as in my opinion it might well develop before the winter is out. I put a question to him as to whether 852 the Board of Trade were taking powers to purchase foodstuffs when necessary and his answer was that further legislation would be necessary to do that, and that a Financial Resolution would have to be brought before the House. As the House may not be called together again for some months the Government, therefore, have now no power to deal in foodstuffs. But the President of the Board of Trade said that they had ample power because they would be able to divert foodstuffs in the proper direction; but how is it possible to divert foodstuffs which are not there? That is a situation which might well arise if there is a severe rise in prices or wide fluctuations in the exchanges. There might be a real difficulty in importing commodities.
Suppose that in a particular district the big retail traders came to the conclusion that the prices charged were unreasonable, that they would not trade at those prices and, therefore, did not buy goods to retail in their district. In that case a shortage would occur, and unless the Government have power to sell the goods themselves it seems to me that they are unable to do anything of any real use. If the Government had power to set up shops themselves, if necessary, and retail goods is would be an invaluable weapon in case any shortage might occur. This, I believe, was what the French Government did when they were faced with a shortage, they set up shops and actually retailed goods in order to combat an unreasonable rise in prices. Let me put to him something which I hope will not occur but which may occur during the next few months. If the exchanges continues to be unstable, if their fluctuations are such as to make international trade difficult and to dislocate the food trade between this country and other countries, it is probable that importers will say that they are unwilling to import their normal quantities of food because the risks would be such as might involve them in a severe loss. They might refuse on perfectly good grounds to involve themselves in contracts which would cause a loss. What is the Government going to do in those circumstances?
I believe that we import something like two-thirds of our foodstuffs. Any dislocation of our imports might have a very 853 serious effect on. the food position in this country. It is no use the Government saying, "Oh, we can divert foodstuffs," if there are no foodstuffs there to be diverted. I suggest that if the Bill is to deal with a situation which might arise it is essential that the Board of Trade should take powers not only to sell in this country, but to buy foodstuffs, and more particularly to import foodstuffs, should occasion arise. Only recently we read of a barter of wheat and coffee between the United States and a South American State, and the transaction was doubtless profitable to both sides. Before the Session ends the Government should secure powers that will enable them to take advantage of such a possibility as that. The President of the Board of Trade said that he did not want to interrupt the normal flow of trade. That may be so, but suppose that the normal flow of trade is interrupted. Suppose that through world forces it is interrupted. It is then the duty of the Government to step into the breach and to import goods where necessary, as the Government did during the War.
I want to pub another point. This winter may be a very ugly one. The number of unemployed will be largely increased. There have been cuts in the unemployment benefit. There will be a rise in prices. If, on top of all that, there is a shortage of food, it is no use shutting one's eyes to the fact that there might be serious outbreaks of violence, the end of which no one can foresee. There is nothing more likely to create that spirit or to aggravate it than a suspicion—it may be no more —that what foodstuffs are available are obtainable by the wealthy, while the poor have to go without. I suggest the consideration now, before such an occurrence takes place, of a detailed rationing system to allay any such suspicion. I fervently hope that the necessity for introducing any such drastic step as that will not arise, but in times of crisis panic and fear are easily aroused, and they only make things more difficult. There is nothing more likely to prevent panic and fear arising than the knowledge that the Government are fully prepared with plans to cope with the situation. I suggest, therefore, that not only should the Government make full and most detailed preparations, but that the people should know that those plans 854 are ready and that the Government are willing to use them when necessary.
I know that it is contrary to the principles of the party opposite for the State itself to trade. During the last great national crisis those principles were allowed to lie dormant. The State then found it necessary to trade itself, because it could not rely on private enterprise to carry us through an emergency. The present situation may develop into one just as serious as the last. It may be even more serious, because tempers are not as sweets as they were then. Failure to take every possible step to deal with any situation that might arise, failure to safeguard with complete adequacy the foodstuffs of the people, might endanger the State every bit as much now as in 1914.
§ Mr. WOMERSLEY
I congratulate the hon. Member who has just spoken on the fact that he has not followed the line of his right hon. Friend who spoke front the Opposition Front Bench. Evidently the hon. Member is satisfied that this Bill is desirable, and he would like to see in it even more drastic powers than it contains. I assure him that he need not worry. Evidently he is like the fat boy who tried to frighten people about something that was not likely to happen. The hon. Member talked about the chances of a scarcity of foodstuffs in this country. I think he can rest assured that the President of the Board of Trade has taken full account of all that may happen during the next 12 months at any rate. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the President of the Board of Trade, immediately he knew that we were to be faced with the difficulty of going off the Gold Standard, took steps to protect the consuming public of this country, and I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman upon the steps that he did take. I congratulate him on the fact that he went to the real sources of supply in this country, and when all is said and done it was necessary to go to the real sources of supply, namely, the people who control the imports of foodstuffs and those who control the great wholesale markets of the country.
I am satisfied that the right hon. Gentleman received from them offers of cooperation that were sincere and genuine. We have had evidence of that in the fact that the markets have not fluctuated 855 during the last few weeks. Then the great retail trade organisations in this country came forward and offered to assist the right hon. Gentleman in every way possible. They stated clearly that they were not going to look for replacement value for their own stock. Although I agree with what an eminent accountant said to the right hon. Gentleman, that it was within the rights of traders to ask for replacement value, still these people did not do anything of the kind. If the boot were on the other leg and prices began to fall it would be no use the retailer expecting to get the price that he paid for goods. But these people came forward and said "We realise that in a time like this it is up to every citizen to do his duty, and to do it right well," and they offered their services. I am glad that the right lion. Gentleman accepted them.
As to an interview that has been referred to, and the question of dealing through various organisations, the right hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. A. V. Alexander) wanted to know what the President of the Board of Trade meant. What he meant was simply this: He realised that it was far better to go to the organisation than to individuals on questions of supplies and prices, quite apart from this Bill. Of course, we were going to have a little storm in a teacup about the co-operative societies, but even the right hon. Gentleman, who told the co-operative people that now he was not in the Cabinet he regretted that he could not represent them inside but could represent them outside-even he had to change that statement about the cooperators not being consulted, for the President of the Board of Trade very sensibly has consulted all the trading interests concerned, and has got an assurance from them that they will play the game by the people of this country; and he has achieved something far better than the threatening methods that the right hon. Member for Hillsborough wanted the House to agree to when he brought forward the Consumers' Council Bill in the last Session of Parliament.
The right hon. Member for Hillsborough wanted to know what I, who have stated repeatedly in this House that I represent the retail traders, thought about this Bill. I say that we welcome the Bill. We have 856 nothing to fear. We are going to play the game. I will state why we objected to the Consumers' Council Bill. In the first place there was no national emergency when the Consumers' Council Bill was brought forward. There was no reason to supose that there was likely to be any profiteering. In fact prices were tumbling down and many small shopkeepers could not make a living. It was the irritating Clauses in the Consumers' Council Bill that were objected to, the methods of inquisition and the hauling up before a committee. A committee of whom? People representing other interests in the retail trade, who were to sit in judgment on their fellow-traders. There is nothing of that kind in the present Bill. We as traders realise that we are faced with a national emergency. We are prepared to play our part with the rest of the community in seeing the thing through. We are not afraid of this Bill or of any other Bill, because we are not out in any way to profiteer at the expense of the community. We realise that it is necessary that the Government should have power to deal with interests that we, as retailers, cannot control.
The message that we took to the President of the Board of Trade was that as long as wholesale prices remain as they are our retail prices will remain the same, but that if the wholesale prices are increased through no fault of ours we shall be bound to charge that little extra. Even then the traders gave a pledge that they would not charge any extra profit on sales. If the great cooperative movement followed the example of the organised retailers of the country we should have nothing to fear for the future. We have heard the illustration about soap. This Bill does not deal at all with raw materials. It deals with the goods that the retailer has to handle. If it were a Bill dealing entirely with raw materials there might be something in the soap question. I know that the right hon. Member for Hillsborough wanted a good advertisement for cooperative soap. Why should he worry about what the private trader does? If the co-operators can sell more cheaply than the private trader they will soon put the private trader out of business. The fact is simply that they cannot do it. They cannot even beat the little street corner shop. To talk about 857 having to strengthen this position and that position because of the chances of profiteering by some little corner shop- keeper, is absolute nonsense. If the co- operators were the powerful organisation that they presume to be they ought to be able to do great things. They have no Income Tax to pay anyhow. They can beat the retailers any time if their organisation is right. But even the small retailers in their own little way can still beat these great societies in selling prices. If the co-operators play the game the retailers are prepared to play the game, and there will be no need to put this Bill into operation.
The hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley) has given the House a good many assurances. As I listened to him, I formed the impression that he must have a good deal of information and, speaking as an ordinary Member of this House, I hope that the President of the Board of Trade is going to pass on to us some further information on this subject. There may be no scarcity at the moment, but judging by this Bill, it is possible that there may be a shortage. The assurances of the hon. Member for Grimsby have not made this Bill unnecessary and have not removed that threat of a shortage. He was pleased to refer to the Consumers' Council Bill and to say that there was no justification for it because there was, at that time, no emergency. My experience goes to show that there are some people in this country who are living in a state of emergency all the time.
I have often heard it said that the gap between wholesale and retail prices is too wide. The hon. Member for Grimsby says that as long as there is no increase in the wholesale prices he gives the House the assurance—he gives it—that there will be no increase in retail prices. There are those who believe that the Government would have shown more courage in dealing with this situation if they had had the temerity to introduce a proposal to reduce retail prices in the same way as they have reduced wages, but that is an issue which they dare not face. Reference has been made in the Bill, and by the President of the Board of Trade to unreasonable prices hut no indication has been given of what prices are to be regarded as unreasonable. Is 50 per cent. on the existing retail price 858 to be regarded as unreasonable? If wages are to be reduced, is the unreasonable price to be related to wages? I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to give the House some information on that point.
I understood the President of the Board of Trade to refer to the wholesale traders who are to co-operate with him in preventing the charging of unreasonable prices but he gave no information as to what kind of organisation has been or is to he set up and I think that the House ought to have such information. A few days ago this House was engaged in reducing wages. Now we have a Bill before us to prevent an unreasonable rise in prices. My criticism of this proposal is that it is quite inadequate. It says nothing about clothes, about hoots, about rents. One might almost believe that hon. Members in certain parts of this House do not know what has been happening in this country. Are they aware that there are workers to-day giving three days of their labour every week in order to pay house rent? In every city in the Kingdom there are houses with controlled rents of about 10s, a week and the decontrolled rents are 18s. and even 20s. per week. In my own constituency of Fast Walthamstow are cottages for which the controlled rent charged is 9s. 6d. per week and the decontrolled rent is 25s. a week. Is that an emergency? What have the Government to say about that? Nothing at all. They do not even propose to stop the process of decontrolling houses.
Hon. Members on this side have been criticised for painting the picture in gloomy colours but what has been said is not exaggeration. In my judgment, and I do not set my judgment up before that of any other Member, there is one factor in this situation which is going to create trouble in this country and that is the unjustified and exorbitant rents which are now being charged for decontrolled houses. The Government would do well to consider that problem even before the rising of the House. In the ease of the Civil Service, for example, thousands of men who are supposed to have good positions because their employment is permanent—the low wages are permanent too—are looking upon the situation now from a very different point of view from that which they took three 859 or four months ago. Hon. Members will have to understand that men and women cannot go on every week undergoing this strain of trying to make ends meet. I beg of the Government to do something on the question of rents. If they faced up to that problem some of us here would have greater belief in the sincerity of hon. Members opposite.
I was very glad to hear the hon. Member for Grimsby talk about those who control our imports and exports. I am glad to know that there are such powers in this country exercising such control. I think, however, that those powers ought to be exercised by a public body and not by private persons. I am glad to have the hon. Member's admission. I was interested also to hear the President of the Board of Trade say, "Of course we shall make use of the Food Council and of those gentlemen who had experience during the War of price control." How very different is that statement from the sentiments expressed in the Committee Room when we were considering the Consumers' Council Bill. Am I wrong when I say to hon. Members opposite that some of them for the last two years have been telling the House that a crisis was coming. Newspapers have repeatedly, and hon. Members opposite have repeatedly warned the country, but the Consumers' Council Bill was opposed by hon. Members opposite in every possible way.
I am new to this House. I hope I shall never be a politician, but if there is one thing which has sickened me of the procedure of this House and of the insincerity which is behind the conduct of public business in this House it is listening day after day and week after week to men who are supposed to have a sense of responsibility, wasting time. The hon. Member for West Bristol (Mr. Culver-well) smiles. He may well smile to think of the public money and the public time which was wasted while a serious proposal such as the Consumers' Council Bill was under consideration-when days were occupied in playing with words. It is no wonder that millions outside are just about sick of the House of Commons. It is time that there was a change and it is the people outside of this House who have to make the change and who have to sweep out of this place some of the people who come here to amuse themselves.
I hope I am serving the people of this country. I will say this, and the hon. Member cannot deny it. He has never known me to waste a single minute of time in this House or in Committee upstairs, and he cannot say the same for himself. I was glad to hear my right hon. Friend the late First Lord of the Admiralty say that Amendments would be proposed to this Bill. The Government would do better if they withdrew this Bill and took over the Consumers' Council Bill and applied it to this situation. The President of the Board of Trade talks about an emergency and suggests that all will be normal again by March next. It is nonsense for any man in this House to give such assurance as that. There is no single Member here who can say with any degree of certainty that this emergency will have passed by March next. We should all like to think that it would have passed by then, but it is impossible to give any such assurance and it would be much better to have a well thought-out Bill, which has already been approved by the House of Commons, like the Consumers' Council Bill applied to the present situation. There is one other reason for taking that course. Hon. Members opposite hope to apply Protection or tariffs. There is no purpose in applying tariffs unless they increase prices, and that is another strong reason for applying the Consumers' Council Bill to a situation which will be aggravated if hon. Members opposite have their way.
The hon. Member for East Walthamstow (Mr. Wallace) wishes to have this Bill withdrawn and the Consumers' Council Bill put in its place, but there is no parallel whatever between the emergency measures which are proposed in this Bill, and the proposals of the Consumers' Council Bill. The Consumers' Council Bill proposed to deal not only with food and drink, but also with clothing and other commodities of general use. In fact, its range covered one-half the national expenditure. Therefore there is no comparison, either with this Bill or with the reason why this Bill is being introduced. It may be that, in the opinion of hon. Members opposite the Consumers' Council Bill would have been an excellent Measure in 861 ordinary times and in the ordinary course of trade, but the late President of the Board of Trade himself admitted that it could only apply to great staple commodities and not to the enormous range of articles which it proposed to include. It was quite impossible for a Bill of that kind to be made to operate with any degree of fairness.
This Bill is being brought in to meet a national emergency. Hon. Members opposite are inclined, even to-day, to imagine that there is no national emergency. My right hon. Friend who introduced the Bill told the House that he had already, by co-operation with the great wholesalers and retailers in this country, prevented any rise in prices. The late First Lord of the Admiralty rather scoffed at the good faith of these great wholesalers and retailers. I think that was reprehensible and a rather cheap thing to do. It is on the good faith and good will of the nation as a whole and on the active co-operation of all that we shall eventually, by means of this Measure and other Measures to be brought in, get through our troubles.
The wholesalers and the retailers at the outset have played a very important part. Had they not given their co-operation I have no doubt that prices would have risen already. Therefore the country owes them a debt of gratitude. [Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite may disagree with me but I am speaking what I feel in this matter. There is no reason to doubt that those who have acted in that manner will continue to do so. If they do not, if unreasonable prices are charged, then it will be necessary to have this Bill so that those unreasonable prices may be checked. I hope and believe that both wholesalers and retailers will continue in the attitude which they have adopted at the outset. If they do not, if there is riot good will and good faith throughout the country to meet the crisis through which we are passing, then indeed we shall be in a very bad way. I recognise the necessity for this Bill, but I hope most sincerely that it will not have to be put into operation.
§ Mr. HOFFMAN
The President of the Board of Trade, when introducing the Bill, reminded me of one of the most important persons in a modern store.
862 He is immaculately dressed, he has a suave manner, and he has gentle flourishes. The most important person in a modern store is the window-dresser, and the right hon. Gentleman reminded me every bit of a window-dresser. During the course of the Consumers' Council Bill upstairs, and in this House, I had to remark—and I was twitted for it over and over again both by the right hon. Gentleman and others—that I thought that that Bill in practice would only apply to one or two main articles. This Bill will not apply to any. What are the principal words in the Bill? They are "unreasonable prices" and "exploitation of the present circumstances." There is no tradesman who will want to exploit unduly the present circumstances. I do not think for a moment that there is a single tradesman, small or large, who will want to take advantage of the present circumstances by increasing his prices unnecessarily.
This Bill only sets out to deal with an unnecessary situation, and it hopes to hide from the voters the fact that prices are bound to go up—necessarily, not unnecessarily. With every fall in the price of the pound, as we are a very big importing nation, up must go the price of those goods that are imported, and as they are imported and charged to the consumer, then the retailer will charge his usual percentage—25 per cent., 12k per cent., 33 per cent.—upon selling price, which means 50 per cent. upon cost. He will charge those prices upon the increased wholesale price, and there will be in consequence a greater profit to the trader for every individual transaction. The traders, it is said, agree with this Bill. Of course, they do. The President of the Board of Trade has consulted the wholesalers and the retailers, and the hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley), who represents in this House a large number of small traders, says, "We welcome this Bill. We do not mind it at all. It is not going to hurt us."
My hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley) did not say that. He said that the small retailers would not take advantage of the situation.
§ Mr. HOFFMAN
Exactly, just as during the War the traders waited upon 863 the Board of Trade—I was in close touch with the matter at that time—and they said, "This is what we usually charge as our percentage, in the case of a draper 33⅓ per cent., and that is what our profit is, and all that we shall continue to do will be to charge 33⅓ per cent." With every rise in the wholesale price, his profit upon the individual transaction increased; indeed, so enormous were the profits made, that we even had the Excess Profits Duty put on, and even then the traders of the country did enormously well. There is not even the most innocent young girl behind the counter who does not understand the position. My wife was doing some shopping this week-end, and she asked in a local store, "What is the price of those apples?" The young lady said, "3½d. a 1b." My wife said, "I shall not pay 3½d. a 1b. for measly apples like that." "Oh," said the young lady, with a toss of her head, "you will be glad to pay 8d. presently if the Gold Standard keeps going up."
§ Mr. HOFFMAN
She knew what was inevitable, namely, that prices were bound to go up. The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that prices are bound to go up, and this Bill is a piece of window-dressing, of camouflage, so that he can go to the electors presently and say, "We are protecting you against any unnecessary increase of prices." Not a word will be said about the inevitable rise of prices because of the devaluation of the pound. My view is that the Government are not taking anywhere near the powers that they ought to take under the Bill. This is, I repeat, merely a piece of window-dressing. The powers that ought to be taken are those that will deal with circumstances that are likely to affect this country from world causes. We have had to devalue the pound, not because the Treasury wanted it, not because the financiers and the banking people and the bondholders wanted it, but because of world causes, and I want to stress the point, as my hon. Friends have already done, that it looks very much as though we are going to get a collapse of the exchanges all round.
864 Germany has already started to take steps to control the whole of her internal money policy, to try to save the position, but, honestly, there is not a single person looking around the world to-day, with a discerning eye at all, who can hope that we are going to get through this winter without immense difficulties. If that is so, we may be driven to barter. Indeed, I quite visualise—and I thought, when I first caught sight of this Bill, that it was something of the sort—that the right hon. Gentleman had that in mind when he spoke about the need for dealing with the situation caused by shortages. He shakes his head, but really we may reach that situation before the winter is out, and 1 would like to feel that the Government had taken a wider view of the difficulties which may confront the country. I hope we have had quite enough of panic. We have had enough of it for the last three or four weeks, and I hope we shall not take measures again when it is almost too late and in a panic.
I would much rather see the right hon. Gentleman asking this House to give him powers to deal with any state of emergency that may arise, especially in connection with foodstuffs. I should feel much safer if he would. I do not mind giving him the powers. What I resent is that he should ask for a simulacrum of power. This is but the shadow of power, and I would much rather he came to this House and frankly said, "We may be in a difficulty. The world is in a state bordering on chaos, and anything may happen, and in order to be on the safe side, we would like the House to arm us with powers to deal with the whole of the food situation, both in regard to bulk purchase and bulk exchange, and even in regard to rationing." I feel sure that those steps will eventually have to be taken. I am not saying this from any pessimistic point of view. Temperamentally, I am an optimist. [Laughter.] I am, temperamentally, but T am looking the facts in the face, and I am bound to say that I think they are very grave and that I should feel very much safer if the right hon. Gentleman had asked us for very much wider powers.
§ Mr. W. J. BROWN
I rise for the purpose of addressing a number of questions to the. Parliamentary Secretary to 865 the Board of Trade, who, I understand, will reply for the Government at the end of the Debate. There will be general agreement on the necessity of doing something to deal with the situation which will almost certainly arise during the coming winter. My view about that situation—I am not quite so optimistic as the hon. Member who preceded me— is that this winter will see a definitely revolutionary situation in Britain. I believe that this winter will precipitate the class struggle in a more acute form than this country has yet known, and in those circumstances clearly the problem of food supplies and of preventing extortionate prices for food supplies becomes of first-class importance from the point of view of this House.
There is another reason why I think the situation will be as serious as I suggest. It is common ground that the great problem confronting the capitalist system of Britain is the problem of over-coming the adverse balance of trade. To a certain extent the departure from the Gold Standard helps in that direction, because it constitutes, in effect, a tariff upon imports and a bounty for exports, but none of us will be prepared to say that the departure from the Gold Standard alone is so far going to solve the adverse balance of trade problem as to make the situation this winter any-thing but a very difficult one from a national point of view and if both these things are correct, then obviously there is great need for dealing with the problem of shortages of supplies before those shortages and rising prices assume their most acute form.
I share the view expressed by the hon. Member who preceded me, that before the winter is up we shall see Britain on ration cards. I believe that in the coming weeks we are going to see a very sharp upward movement, in prices. Many hon. Members do not believe that. Many hon. Members say that, in the same way as there has been a tremendous lag in the past between the fall of wholesale prices and the fall of retail prices, so, when wholesale prices rise, there will be a corresponding lag before they affect retail, prices in anything like the same way. I see no ground for that optimism, and I agree with everybody who has spoken so far in saying that there is an 866 emergency to be faced. The Opposition have announced their attitude to the Bill. My job is to announce the attitude of my party. My party is the one party in the House which is not divided from top to bottom, but before I can announce its attitude, I need to address a number of questions to the Parliamentary Secretary. I find great difficulty in understanding the Bill. It is at one and the same time narrow and very wide—
§ Mr. BROWN
I know nothing about the Government or their Bills which resembles ray party. If there were anything I should be happier about the crisis in the coming winter, This Bill, too, is at once very modest and very ambitious. I want to find out where we have to place the emphasis in dealing with the Bill. It begins by saying:If it appears to the Board of Trade that by reason of the action of ally persons in exploiting the present financial situation.There may be a shortage in commodities or a rise in prices—then the Board of Trade can do something. It can only do something, however, if the shortage or the rise in prices arises from the action of any person in exploiting the present financial situation. What does that phrase mean? Exploitation goes on quite apart from the present financial situation. It is a normal feature of the capitalist system, and, if the Government can only act under this Bill, they can prove that the shortage or the rise in prices is the direct result of the action of some person in exploiting the present financial situation, the Bill is not worth the paper it is written on. The Bill goes on to say: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 am not sure that this is not the most revolutionary Bill which has ever been introduced into the House of Commons. It is either that, or it is humbug. If the Parliamentary Secretary exercises the powers which it gives, he will become more famous than his famous father.
867 What are the factors that create shortage? Under this Bill the President of the Board of Trade is given power to deal with them all. He may be able to satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Burslem (Mr. MacLaren) who thinks that the private ownership of land is the fundamental cause of shortage, and I agree with him. Under this Bill, the President of the Board of Trade may nationalise the land. In those circumstances, he will clearly supersede the Minister of Agriculture. He can do more. The operation of the tithes system is a factor in putting farms out of cultivation and creating a shortage. The Bill gives the Government power to deal with any factor that creates a shortage, so we may see the President of the Board of Trade abolishing the tithes system and thereby superseding the chief Ecclesiastical Commissioner.
§ Mr. BROWN
I am seriously arguing my point, and, if I am doing it by the weapon of ridicule, that weapon is a legitimate one. I am seriously arguing that this Bill gives the President of the Board of Trade power by regulations to make such provisions as he considers necessary or expedient for the purpose of remedying or preventing a shortage in any article of food.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
The hon. Gentleman is forgetting that the whole of the Clause is governed by the words:by reason of the action of any persons in exploiting the present financial situation.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
Hon. Members who are out of order usually say that they are seriously arguing. The hon. Member is clearly out of order.
§ Mr. BROWN
One of the points of criticism addressed by the Opposition to this Bill is that while the Consumers' Council Bill specifically limited the powers of the President of the Board of Trade to the setting up of machinery for 868 preventing undue prices, this Bill goes much further. It gives almost unlimited powers to the President of the Board of Trade if the English of it has any value at all. I have often remarked that in this House English very often does not mean what it says, but, if English means anything at all, this Bill gives unlimited and revolutionary powers to the President of the Board of Trade to do what he likes. Indeed, I am not sure whether under Clause 2 it does not give him power to establish a dictatorship in Great Britain. That Clause says:Regulations made under this Section may, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provision confer or impose on any person or body of persons such powers and duties as the Board of Trade may consider necessary or expedient for effecting the purpose aforesaid.The Bill will therefore give the President power to appoint somebody to do all that I have said is possible under Clause 1. If he exercises that power to appoint me, all will be well, but, owing to the formidable competition from legal and other gentlemen opposite, I cannot entertain the hope that he really intends to appoint me. I am suspicious of the kind of person he will appoint, because, if I know him aright, I know that the person he will appoint is the kind of person who will do nothing serious to hold the situation this winter, because he will not be able to act in defiance of the capitalistic interests for which the right hon. Gentleman and his party stand. I am encouraged in the belief that the right hon. Gentleman does not really intend to do anything by the amazingly loose phraseology of the later parts of the Bill. I am very well acquainted with the Civil Service, which is trained in the use of English, and when I see a Bill like this in terms so vague and ambiguous, I know that it is not the work of the Civil Service, but the work of the Minister.
The proof that the Government do not intend to do anything serious is in the extreme vagueness of the language dealing with trial by courts of summary jurisdiction. When you are dealing with some poor wretch of a shopkeeper in a back street you can haul him in front of a court of summary jurisdiction, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley) that it is not the little street-corner shopkeeper who is 869 the villain of this piece, even if he does put his normal 33⅓ per cent. on the enhanced price. The fellow who is responsible at bottom is the fellow who creates the enhanced price in the first instance. Those who are responsible are the anonymous speculators on the Stock Exchange, people who buy and sell a cargo of wheat a dozen times over on its voyage from New York to Liverpool and do not figure in the transactions. We know that wheat changes hands a dozen times very often between leaving New York and reaching Liverpool. Which of the dozen people are you going to prosecute if the price of wheat goes up unreasonably?
Under this Bill the Stock Exchange speculator is as safe as houses. What about the limited liability companies? Whom are you to prosecute there? The secretary, who is a paid servant of the organisation, or the chairman, or the members of the board of directors? In the case of the multiple shop, are you going to prosecute Joe Lyons, or the manager of some little provincial shop of Joe Lyons? The Bill leaves the big man safe and only exposes the little man to the danger of disciplinary action. There is historical precedent for the Bill in the Measure recently introduced in the German Parliament. That enables persons who intensify difficulties in Germany be brought before Courts of summary jurisdiction. It is drafted in terms very similar to the terms of this Bill, and it is designed for precisely the same purpose. Under that Measure some poor little shopkeeper is brought before a Court of summary jurisdiction and sent to "quod," but the big criminals are perfectly safe, although many of them are well known. Finally, I come to the most revealing provision of this amazing Bill—the provision which says:This Act shall cease to have effect on the expiration of six months from the passing thereof.A lovely Clause! What does it mean? Is there a man on that Front Bench who believes that the crisis which is now paralysing British capitalism will be over within six months from the date of the passing of this Bill? A massive silence is the reply! Do they believe the crisis will be past by then? If they do, let them say so, and the country will rock with laughter at the naiveté of such a conception. If they do not believe it 870 will be over in six months, why limit the operation of this Bill to six months? Is it because six months is about the required time in which to achieve an agreed formula and carry through the necessary action?
I submit that this is not a Bill for the protection of the community from exploitation, not a Bill to save poor men from becoming poorer still, not a Bill to save the unemployed, who have already experienced two cuts. They have had the cut arising from the decline from the Gold Standard and a cut in unemployment pay, and they are to have a third cut in the exploitation of the situation. It is not a Bill to save civil servants, teachers, policemen, soldiers or sailors from increased prices. It is a Bill to enable this motley crew, this amazing combination of renegade Socialists, dubious Portuguese, and crusted Conservatives to face a General Election and to be in a position to say "We are not friends of the exploiter; look at the Bill we have passed." When somebody interrupted from this side to ask whether the Prime Minister approved of this Bill, the right hon. Gentleman said that it had been submitted to him, and that he had approved of it. I believe it. I can imagine nothing more characteristic of the late Prime Minister's methods—[Interruption.] I beg your pardon, the present Prime Minister or the late Socialist Prime Minister, in inverted commas. I can imagine nothing more characteristic of his combination of sitting on the fence behind a facade of words—[interruption.] I am told that I am mixing my metaphors. I would sooner do that than have mixed the contents of this Bill. Whatever else I have done in this House I have never produced a brew like this. The present Prime Minister is a master in the art of using language to conceal thought, and this is a first-class example of the art at its best. The purpose of the Bill is to provide the Members of the Government with some kind of shield from the charge they are going to meet that they are not a National Government; that they are not the people's Government, but that they are a "Committee of Bankers' Safety." By the grace of God, if they go to an election within a few weeks from now the country will say decisively what it thinks of their government and the Bill they have introduced.
The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD of TRADE (Major Lloyd George)
I am sure the House will not expect me to follow the last speaker into the many courses which he has pursued. On the other hand, I can congratulate him on the fact that when he goes to his next party meeting he will have very little difficulty in explaining the stand he took against this Bill. He asked one or two questions about the meaning of words in the English language. I do not agree with him over the difficulties he tried to raise, and I am perfectly certain that it was not seriously thought for one moment that the interpretations he was putting on those words would be those which would be adopted by any responsible person.
I will try to reply to the questions which have been raised in the Debate. In some ways it has been an extraordinary Debate, because some speeches have stated that the Bill is far too drastic, and others have said that it is purely window-dressing. The hon. Member for Central Sheffield (Mr. Hoffman) referred in very complimentary terms to my right hon. Friend the President, and stated that he would make a first-class window-dresser. Judging by the speech of the hon. Gentleman for the Central Division of Sheffield his tone was so pessimistic throughout that I do not think he would have been capable of making a good window-dressing speech. With reference to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman for the Hillsborough Division of Sheffield (Mr. Alexander), I cannot follow him into all his exchanges with my right hon. Friend regarding the Consumers' Council Bill. Whatever he may have to say about the fate of his child he cannot blame me for it; and, therefore, I will pass on to his criticisms of the Bill.
First I would like to say that I think the right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the reason for the Bill. He stated that it was introduced only because this Government had failed in their object of stabilising the pound. As a matter of fact, the reason for the introduction of the Bill is that we have gone off the Gold Standard, and is to prevent any exploitation that may follow from that. He suggested that we should have an inquiry, but an inquiry takes time and he knows as well as anybody in this House that prices alter from week to week, and the necessity for immediate action is very 872 obvious at a time when fluctuations take place in prices. He referred with some scoffing to the remark of my right hon. Friend that up to the present "a square deal" had been offered to the public by people responsible for food supplies, and did not agree with the suggestion that purely as a matter of business a firm would be entitled to charge a higher price in order to meet replacement costs.
I will tell the House a story of what happened once in a country where there was rapid depreciation in the currency, and perhaps they will understand the position better. A man bought a ton of nails at 20s. The currency depreciated, and when he sold them the proceeds of the sale enabled him to buy only 15 cwt. when he gave his next order. The proceeds of the sale of the 15 cwt. enabled him to buy only half-a-ton of nails next time, and when he had sold them he was able to buy only 5 cwt. So it went on, and finally, with the proceeds of the last sale, he was able to buy only one nail, and he drove that into the wall and hanged himself from it. It is obvious that if the value of the pound were to continue to decline one could not blame those who have to replace their stocks for taking the necessary steps to safeguard themselves against further depreciation, but up to the present that has not happened; there have been no increases of any sort in prices where such increases could have been justified.
May I make my position plain? I never argued that up to the moment traders had taken an unfair advantage, but what I did object to was the extraordinary statement that what they had done was to give "more than a square deal," which was what the President said. I say that it is immoral for them to charge more for the goods they have in stock at the moment than is the proper addition to make to the price they paid. They would deal with goods bought subsequently as they purchased them.
Major LLOYD GEORGE
I am sorry to differ from my right hon. Friend about that. Surely if a man buys an article from abroad for £1, and by the time he has sold it the value of the pound is only 17s. 6d. he could perfectly fairly, in view of the fact that he has to replace his stock, increase his price in order to be able to replace it. That, in itself, 873 would be a square deal, because he would be doing what he was entitled to do. If the pound went on depreciating, as time passed lie would not be able to buy anything at all. As the seller has not passed on any increase in price, I think the President was quite right in saying it was more than a square deal.
Major LLOYD GEORGE
The point that really matters is that they have not increased prices. The right hon. Gentleman asked one or two questions with regard to the present financial situation and wanted us to define what was meant by those words. The present financial situation is the present financial situation which comes to an end as far as this particular Bill is concerned six months from the date of the passing of it. I cannot see what better definition one could get than that winch I have given. The present financial situation is the situation caused by this country going off the Gold Standard. The Bill says that it is to operate for six months only. I cannot see what possible definition there could be which is better than that.
I am anxious that the legal position should be made clear. These are very vague words in an Act of Parliament. They will be subject to interpretation in the courts. Does "the present financial situation" apply to the situation on the appointed day or to any part of the period of six months during which the Measure will be in operation?
Major LLOYD GEORGE
I should have thought it applied from the time the Bill became law till the six months were up.
Major LLOYD GEORGE
Oh, no; nobody suggested that. I do not suppose the hon. Member opposite could say when that will happen any more than we could.
§ Mr. GEORGE HARDIE
Will the basis of calculation be the prices at the date on which the Bill is passed or what was called a reasonable price last week?
Major LLOYD GEORGE
Surely it is obvious that a reasonable price must have regard to the depreciation of sterling. If a man charges more than is reasonable according to the depreciation of sterling we shall know what to do.
§ Mr. HARDIE
But let us leave out the case of goods which come from abroad. There is the case of the man who would charge 4½d. for a cabbage in Sutton. What is to be done in a case like that? That has nothing to do with the falling exchange.
Major LLOYD GEORGE
The Bill means what it says, and hon. Members opposite are trying to make it mean something totally different. It is a Bill to deal with exploitation caused by the present financial situation. That is exactly what it means, and I do not see how anybody can put any other interpretation upon it. Then I was asked, Who is going to prosecute? The answer is that it will be the Board of Trade. Another question was, Who is to be prosecuted? The answer is whoever is responsible, whether it is a corporation or an individual.
This is rather an important point, and I hope the President of the Board of Trade will look into it before the Committee stage. I know that in civil law it is generally held that a company is responsible, but here we are dealing with criminal proceedings.
Major LLOYD GEORGE
The right hon. Member for the Hillsborough Division went on to say that the whole Bill was pure humbug and bluff, and, after having said that, declared that the President of the Board of Trade had in this Measure gone further than even the late Government had ever intended to do. The right hon. Member cannot have it both ways. One hon. Member referred to the risk incurred by the importers, but the man who sends the stuff across the seas incurs far more risk than the importer. It has been suggested that the Board of Trade may be faced with a shortage, and that it would be necessary to ration food. As a matter of fact, there is no sign of a shortage, and there happens to be a 875 glut. Consequently, a shortage is not likely to arise. Under these circumstances hon. Members opposite who talk about rationing at the present time are not doing anything which is calculated to allay panic in this country. I think it would be far better to refer to this Bill as one which is intended to meet a position which has not arisen at the present time and which we hope may never arise.
There is no question of a shortage at the present time. Fortunately, a large proportion of the food imported into this country comes from countries which are themselves off the Gold Standard, and therefore there is every reason to hope that there will be no increase of price at all in imported commodities. The hon. Member for East Walthamstow (Mr. Wallace) regretted that no reference to clothes and rent and so on was to be found in this Bill, but the Government thought that it was much more important to tackle the question of our food supplies first, and that is the reason why other articles have not been included.
I have done my best to answer all the questions which have been put to me, and I have tried to cover the ground raised in the speeches of hon. Members opposite. I hope that the House will now agree to the Second Reading of this Bill. While the Government realise that the powers for which they are asking are drastic, we all hope and believe that it may not be necessary to use them. I may say in conclusion that I am certain, should the necessity arise, the Government will use these powers without the slightest hesitation.
§ Mr. EDE
I wish to congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade upon the first speech he has delivered from the Treasury Bench. I am bound, however, to express my dissatisfaction with the answers which the hon. and gallant Member has given to the questions which have been put to him. I notice that the President of the Board of Education is sitting opposite, and the right hon. Gentleman, speaking on Saturday last week at Wadebridge, said that at the present time a General Election would be autumnal insanity. The point is whether the right hon. Gentleman is going to the election in the padded cell or outside the asylum. We shall not 876 know which it will be until a few hours hence when the secret may be out. The President of the Board of Trade told the House this afternoon that this Measure has only been brought forward because Members of Parliament will be otherwise engaged than in sitting on these benches.
We have been told by the Parliamentary Secretary that the Government do not think that this Bill will be wanted, but that if it is wanted it will be there ready to be used. If it is wanted, then the penalties in it are far too lenient to make it effective unless it is intended merely to apply to small people. This is a subject with which the House has had to deal during the centuries on a great many occasions. For centuries Acts have been passed dealing with forestalling, ingrossing and regrating. This is the most lenient Measure that has ever been proposed for dealing with these gentlemen. In 1350 it was enacted that all forestallers of merchandise should be liable to the forfeiture of their goods and a fine, and, in default of payment, two years' imprisonment. This was strengthened in 1363 by an Act entitled:Merchants shall not engross merchandises to enhance the price of them, nor use but one sort of merchandise.In the reign of the saintly Edward VI, we find that the punishment of these offences was:on the first conviction, two months' imprisonment and forfeitures; on the second half a year's imprisonment and forfeiture of double the value of the goods; and on the third, pillory, forfeiture of all offender's goods and cattle, and imprisonment during the King's pleasure.If the right hon. Gentleman is going to deal with the people who can turn the present situation to their advantage, as for instance the meat trade which possesses a practical monopoly, something will be wanted far more drastic than a miserable three months' imprisonment or a fine of £100. [interruption.] I wonder how the Secretary for Mines would have dealt with a situation like that? I was going to suggest that if wholesale exploitation is attempted, power to inflict the death penalty ought to be invested in the Minister.
The Secretary for Mines, at a time when he did not anticipate having to shoulder the responsibility of office, said 877 that unless the question of cutting down unemployment benefit was tactfully handled we should see, during the coming winter, scenes of great social disorder. I know that the hon. Member for Bodimin (Mr. Foot) was sincere when he made that statement, and would not say one thing out of office and another in office, and, consequently, he must be looking to the coming winter with the very gravest misgivings. I do not want to use this Bill and similar measures to excite the wrath of the populace against the traders in back streets when the real villains of the piece may be men of tremendous wealth and power against whom the penalties in this Bill will prove to be a laughing stock. I urge the Government to make this Measure a real Measure by increasing the penalties, and I hope we shall have an assurance that on the very first sign of any effort being made to exploit the present situation this Measure will be put very actively into use. I join with my hon. Friend the Member for East Walthamstow (Mr. Wallace) in urging that this Measure should be extended so as to cover clothes and coal. These materials are just as important as food supplies to those who will be affected by this Measure. In view of the cut in unemployment benefit, and the fall in wages, it is essential that something should be done to prevent the steady rise of rent, especially in decontrolled houses.
I would like to emphasise a point which has been made by the hon. Member for Central Sheffield (Mr. Hoffman), who said that we are going to have the very greatest possible difficulty in maintaining the normal supply of food during the coming winter and that we shall find increasing difficulty in getting the food in unless we are prepared to take very drastic steps with regard to State purchase and State control of imports when we have purchased them. I hope that in this Measure—I am sure the Chancellor of the Exchequer as a convinced Socialist will be desirous of seeing this Measure strengthened—steps will be taken to make it certain that at the slightest sign of any difficulty occurring in securing any of the essential commodities for this country, powers for State purchase and barter should be vested in the President of the Board of Trade, and I think we should have an assurance that 878 these powers are going to be used unsparingly in the public interest.
The Prime Minister has assured us that we are in a position almost approaching a state of war. I suggest to the Prime Minister that in these circumstances he should pay another visit to Churt—or the Parliamentary Secretary might have a family council—and obtain from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) some account of the steps taken by him to meet the situation during the War with regard to our food supplies. I hope that the harmony of the Government may not be further disturbed by the President of the Board of Trade under this Bill having to arrest the Minister of Agriculture because none of the steps permitted under the Agricultural Land (Utilisation) Bill have been put in force. I think that -the powers under that Measure, if put into force, would have rendered this Bill unnecessary.
I regret that no answer has been given to the question put by the hon. Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. W. J. Brown) who asked whether the Government anticipate that the present crisis is going to end six months after the passing of this Bill. Is it considered that the present crisis is something that can be put an end to by an Act of Parlianient? Conservative Speakers' Notes said a fortnight ago that the Conservatives alone bad saved the pound, and that if they had not done so pound notes would have fallen so much in value that they would have been used as spills for lighting pipes and fires. That is what the Conservative party put into the mouths of their speakers in order to disseminate panic. That is the prospect which the party of the President of the Board of Trade holds out to the people of this country during the coming winter. I sincerely hope that this Measure will be so strengthened as to make it of some little use, so that, whether the General Election results—as the country, II am sure, profoundly hopes it will not—in the return of right hon. Gentlemen opposite, or whether it places on those benches people who are determined to see that this situation is not used for the exploitation of the public, during that period we shall at least be safe from the appal- 879 ling fate which the Conservative party believes is shortly to overtake us.
§ Mr. LONGDEN
While I fully realise that this Bill is concerned with food prices and shortage, I am none the less sorry that the hon. and gallant Gentleman who replied for the Government did not deal with the matter of rent. Rent is a very important factor in working-Mass budgets. In my own Division, for instance, you will find a family of three, who are living upon 23s. 3d. per week unemployment benefit, paying as much as 10s. for one room. Evidently, if a family has to pay nearly half its income for rent, there is not going to be much left for food, clothing or any other necessaries. The hon. and gallant Gentleman also said that there was no need to anticipate a shortage of foodstuffs, because there was abundance in the world; but it does not necessarily follow that, because there is abundance in the world, prices are not going to be unreasonable. We have yet to learn that the suppliers of these commodities, primary or secondary, are ever ready to send prices down to a reasonable level when they can obtain what is really an unreasonable level of prices from the people who need the food.
It appears to me that, as was said by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. A. V. Alexander), this Bill is either a gigantic piece of bluff or it is deliberately mistaken in intent and content, and that contention is borne out by some of the passages in the Bill. That there are potential powers—extremely strong powers—in this Bill, no one can deny, but this is what it will mean:The Board of Trade may by regulation make such provision as they consider necessary or expedient for the purpose"—and so on. Does not that mean, not that action must be taken at a given time, but that the President of the Board of Trade may, if he thinks that at that moment he ought to do so, take action in this way? When we were considering the Consumers' Council Bill upstairs, many things were said on that point. Hon. Members opposite were very much concerned about concentrating dictatorial powers in the hands of the President of the Board of Trade, through his power to appoint a board and the several committees of investigation. The 880 right hon. and gallant Member for the New Forest and Christchurch (Colonel Ashley) told us upstairs, on Tuesday, the 7th July last, that he objected to handing over to the President of the Board of Trade power to examine him on oath. Certainly there is a difference there. You may not be asking for a judicial oath, but you are necessarily forcing some small shopkeeper or other to come before you and explain the reason why he or she is charging a given price at a, given moment for a given article. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman, therefore, should wonder why he is going to support a Bill which places such immense potential powers in the hands of the President of the Board of Trade.
I was amazed by the statement of the right hon. Gentleman who moved the Second Reading when he said in effect that had there been no crisis, or, at least, had Parliament been certain of continuing, a Bill of this kind would have been unnecessary. He said that, normally speaking, we should only need a Bill of this kind when we saw unreasonable prices coming upon us—when, as I think was his expression, unreasonable prices were apparent. Surely, there is something strange about a statement like that. The Consumers' Council Bill necessarily assumes that, whether you are in a big crisis like this or the numerous crises of normal days, you must have some power of controlling exploitation by shortage or extortionate prices. Moreover, we are not given the slightest idea as to what the index of the level of prices should be at a given time, nor are we told how a case of need, as the Bill puts it, will be located—whether the case will be handed over to the President of the Board of Trade as exemplifying a very extortionate case, or what will be done. Nobody knows. All that we are told is that unreasonable prices and shortages must be watched. The President of the Board of Trade ought to tell us what a temporary crisis really means. The Chancellor of the Exchequer always taught that, as he knows so well, the working classes are always faced with price and shortage crises, and, whether it is a matter of the Gold Standard or not, that is the situation which Members on this side of the House necessarily have to face.
881 I am reminded of what was said by the President of the Board of Trade on the Second Reading of the Consumers' Council Bill. He said, criticising the then President of the Board of Trade, that the right hon. Gentleman had said that his Bill was not much good, and he agreed with that, because, without a full-blooded piece of Socialist legislation, you could not control prices. The right hon. Gentleman comes to the House now, in the midst of a crisis, not having anticipated it as we on this side did in the case of the Consumers' Council Bill, and tells us, not that only a full-blooded Socialist Measure would stop exploitation by prices, but that he may interfere and control prices in the meagre fashion that is suggested in the present Bill. Later in his speech on the Second Reading of the Consumers' Council Bill he said this, which is very pertinent to the Bill that is now before us:Experience proves, and all authorities agree, that, if you control prices at all, you have to control them at every stage from start to finish. That was the Wartime experience, and it has been the experience ever since."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th March, 1931; col. 736, Vol. 250.]He went on to quote Sir William Beveridge, who said that ultimately it became clear that nothing that mattered at all as food for the people could safely be left free of price control. The right hon. Gentleman, therefore, although he brings forward a. Bill like this, did admit, in the Debate on the Consumers' Council Bill, that what he is now suggesting cannot be really effected. As was pointed out by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough, it is clear that there is something very much wrong with this Bill. It suggests a powerful means, through the President of the Board of Trade, for controlling prices and for watching shortages and unreasonable prices generally. We know very well, however, that the disorder of society does not permit anything of the kind, and that, whatever may be the moral view of the shopkeeper, or the middleman, or the wholesaler, or the manufacturer, it is pretty clear that they will get the very best price that the situation will afford.
It was rather amusing to listen -to the hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley), who is always very much concerned about the small shopkeeper. During the discussions on the Consumers' Council Bill, he was very much concerned about the poor shopkeeper. The co-operative 882 Members had deliberately designed the Consumers' Council Bill in. order to cripple the poor shopkeeper, who is struggling from day to day. What does this Bill mean if it does not suggest primarily that the poor shopkeeper is to be the butt, the beginning of the investigation, that he must receive an inquisition, an imposition? As we can see from the yards of printed matter, representing many hours wasted upstairs by hon. Members opposite, and particularly the hon. Member for Grimsby, we were told all the time that our Bill was aimed at the poor shopkeeper, that he would always have to be on the qui vive, that he would always be wondering whether some crafty official was sneaking in by his back door for the purpose of looking at his prices, and asking him his overhead charges and what the return for his efforts was. We got yards of that stuff. It was hardly playing the game. Now the right hon. Gentleman comes along and supports a Bill which means, if the English in it is any true indication, that it is the poor shopkeeper who is going to feel the brunt first and the general consuming masses feel it next.
§ Mr. MANDER
As one who had the experience, for a number of very agreeable hours during the past slimmer, of listening to the President of the Board of Trade resisting by all his ingenuity and by any argument he could think of any Measure of this kind, it is a source of gratification to me to find him to-day introducing a Measure which I urgently tried to persuade him to support earlier this year. I ant glad his conversion has taken place to this extent and I hope that, if it is necessary to include other articles beside food and drink, such as were included under the Consumers' Council Bill, he will not hesitate to come down and ask permission to include those articles, too. I hope that he will not find it necessary, but I am sure he will not hesitate if the necessity arises. There is one specific point which I would put to the President of the Board of Trade. There is a reference made in the first 'Clause to the present financial situation. That needs defining and explaining. It may be that it refers to going off the Gold Standard which the Government were formed to maintain. On the other hand—and this is what. I want to know— 883 it may have some reference to some projected plan or policy which it is hoped to pass through this House in November or in the succeeding months. I do not know whether there is any truth in it, but we are told that Parliament is to be dissolved in the near future, that the Government are going to the country either on Protection or on Free Trade or on some hopeless mixture of the two and that, among other things, they will ask permission to impose food taxes on the people of this country.
Suppose the right hon. Gentleman and his friends are in a position—as I know they desire to be—in a few months' time to impose a tax of 10s. a quarter on all wheat coming into this country. Suppose the farmers of this country, contrary to what we have been told, have the audacity to raise their prices 10s. a quarter. We were told that prices should not rise at all, but suppose they do not follow that duty and raise their prices 10s. a quarter, will it be possible to proceed under this Bill against those farmers? It is a matter of enormous importance, certainly to my constituents, who are determined to do everything in their power to resist food taxation such as the right hon. Gentleman and his friends are anxious to impose on the people of this country. If anything of that kind were to arise, it would be necessary to use this Bill to a much greater extent than the right hon. Gentleman has any idea at the present time. It would be a very useful Act in a situation of that sort. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to assure the House and the country, before they are asked to record their votes, and to assure the farmers, too, that it will be possible under this Bill to keep down any rise in prices, however high the tariffs imposed on wheat coming into this country. It is an important matter, because my constituents are determined to take every step in the future to resist measures of food taxation which they have resisted now for 99 years in succession.
§ Mr. G. HARDIE
I should not rise but for the answers I received to the questions I put. I understood the Parliamentary Secretary to say that the Bill referred only to prices affected by the fall in the pound outside the British Isles. If 884 this is to be a Bill to deal with foodstuffs, then we have also got to take into account what is produced in this country. Let me give a simple instance. This morning potatoes in Sutton, where I live, were 2s. 4d. a stone, or 2d. a lb. Is that a reasonable or unreasonable price? I have been doing the shopping on purpose to get first-hand information, and yesterday, too, I visited places where people are growing cabbage and other vegetables for the market. I travelled 18 miles yesterday in order to get firsthand information because I had this Bill in my pocket, and wanted to know what was going to happen to producers in this country. One man was making an extension which he said he was unable to make two months ago. Now that he wanted to make it he was being asked a higher rate of interest for the money he required. Will the President of the Board of Trade tell us if the man who has to pay more interest to the bank is not to be allowed to put it on the price of his goods or will this Bill deal with the man who increases the price at which he lends his money? I know that this is a detail, and that details are often skipped over. The Parliamentary Secretary told a story about a nail. There is a Scottish way of telling that story which I would like to tell him privately which has quite a different meaning. Next time he gives an illustrative story, I hope that it will be more definite and more related to the subject.
§ Mr. HARDIE
When the hon. and gallant Gentleman was dealing with the continued depreciation of the nails so that the quantity went down from the ton to the quarter, he was considering it in relation to the outside, but what about the inside? I was giving an illustration just now to show the effect of the increase in interest, and how it affects a man's power to produce. What are you going to do about local prices? What are you going to do about prices rising? You talk of "the present financial situation." Does that mean that it is going to be dealt with by a fixed day with fixed values? You cannot measure without fixed values. You know that there must be a datum line. The hon. and gallant Gentleman knows from practical experience that you cannot start a job without 885 a datum line. If he applied his engineering knowledge and science to that subject, he would never have made the speech he did. What does "the financial situation" mean? Does it mean that the present financial situation is such that no one can define it? Is it to be a statement by which a basis is to be made by saying that x at 12 o'clock on the 23rd or 24th may be y at 2.30 and may revert to a next day or may be a, b or c two or three months after? I want a fixed value, a datum line on which I can make my calculations. Give me the datum line, and I will make out the rest.
On that point of the financial situation, which is still undefined, we find superimposed "any unreasonable increase in price." First of all, we require to define what a reasonable increase in price is. You must have a standard measure of your reasonable price. If someone came to the Parliamentary Secretary with a schedule for a job to deal with and he was taking out the quantities, it would be no good talking about having reasonable quantities. It is necessary to say the number of tons. Here, if the hon. and gallant Member will apply his engineering knowledge, one comes down to common sense. What is this that we would call "any unreasonable increase?" That means that reason must be applied, although I do not see any proof of that being done in any part of the Bill. Whenever you apply reason to anything, even the price of an article, you are dealing with something which you can put in figures. Are we going to say that the reasonable price for cheese to-day is so much? Are we going to have a datum line fixed saying what is the reasonable price for potatoes, ham and other articles? When you have fixed that, then, if some influence over which we have no control tends to increase the price of the articles, you still have your datum line and can say that, since outside influences have intervened, it is reasonable to charge 2d. or 3d. more. I conclude by asking whether we are to have any definition of what is meant by "the present financial situation" and by "unreasonable increase." I hope that, in the interests not of the Government but of the ordinary man, we may have a definition now, so that the people outside as well as those inside may know what this Bill means, what it is to measure, and what it is to include.
§ Mr. MARLEY
It is said of men and of circumstances that you can judge them best in an emergency. You can judge this system of society best in an emergency. It is said, if you want to find out what the calibre of an individual is test him at a testing time. This Bill, promoted by Conservatives and Liberals, says quite definitely that they cannot trust people to run this system of society and not to exploit their fellow-men when the opportunity offers. It says, give the opportunity to the people who control our system to speculate, even at the expense of the people, in a time of national crisis and they will do it to the full. That is written across the face of the Bill. Either you can trust them to charge a reasonable price or you cannot. It reminds me of the first story I ever heard, of a little boy who was asked what he thought of Nelson's famous signal, "England expects that every man this day will do his duty." He said Nelson suspected that there were some who would not do their duty. If he had not had that suspicion, there was no need to put the order up. The boy is now a capable scholar teaching other people history. If you believe that the present system works adequately, why do you need to take precautions in a time of emergency? There is no definition of "present financial situation." I assume from what I have heard that, having gone off the Gold Standard, we shall have to pay a higher price in sterling for our imports, and they do not want that higher price to be passed on with arithmetical or geometrical increases to the consumer.
They are going to prevent the exploitation of the ultimate consumer—by whom? By the retailer. How far back are they going along the line from the retailer, I do not think you can get very far. You go to the little retailer and say, "You have charged an unreasonable price for this article." He says, "I can prove to you that I have only charged a reasonable percentage increase on what I paid the wholesaler." The wholesaler says, "I can prove to you that I have only put a reasonable percentage of what I had to pay the importer." The importer says, "Since I have to buy in a speculative market and I do not know what your pound will be worth next week or a month after, I have to have a margin of profit. I have a safety margin of 80 per cent." Why should he not have 887 a safety margin of 80 per cent. if he finds rapid fluctuations in the pound? What will the President of the Board of Trade do in those circumstances? Suppose the importer of wheat says, "The pound is moving in such a way that we do not know at what price we shall be able to replace our present supplies. In the ordinary way we are prepared to work on a margin of 10 or 15 per cent. At the moment we do not think it is safe to work on a margin of less than 80 per cent." They pass that on to the wholesaler, the wholesaler passes it on to the retailer, and you go to the retailer and say, "You have been charging too much." Apart from setting up a control board to fix the prices of imports, you can get nowhere by the Bill, because everyone can argue that he has only charged a reasonable price. You cannot say the importer is being unreasonable in a system of society run by speculation. If you believe that the importer has a right to speculate on the market and to buy ahead to replace his supplies not knowing what the price of the pound will be, you cannot fix any reasonable prices at all.
One more point. Why only apply this to food prices? Are we saying this is an immoral system of society, and the Bill has no basis in morality at all but simply in hardship, and that you expect an increase in price on this class of commodities will not hit people so much as an increase in food? Why should a man be exploited in his clothes and boots and not be exploited in his breakfast Why should you not take precautions to prevent him from being exploited in the soap with which he washes himself? Why not prevent all exploitation covering every article that he buys, and also his rent? Why not cover every item that comes into the ordinary working-class household? It is that which makes me think this is a piece of window-dressing. The so-called National Government, the concatenation of Members of all parties who are going to the country for support for tariffs, advised by the President of the Board of Trade, know perfectly well that there is going to be a sharp rise in prices. That is the reason for the Bill. They expect it, on the latest information. They would be immediately asked in the country, "When you were asked from the Labour 888 side what you were going to do to control prices, why did you not introduce a Bill?" Now they have introduced their Bill, and what is it worth? If you are not going to control the prices of imports and if you are not going to regulate the system of society so that you can say, "That is a reasonable price," you will have no reasonable price right down the line to the retailer. I should like to hear someone opposite say you can determine what is a reasonable retail price if you cannot fix what is a reasonable importing price. If you have to go back to fix your importing price, is it going to be done under the present system of society or does it mean control of imports? Why not face up to the issue and say, "We are going to control imports of food"? Get down to the policy on which you are going to fight in the country—the control of imports. But this will not prevent exploitation by each and every person arguing that they have only charged a reasonable increase.
Why should not the home producer do the same? Why should not the producer of wheat ask that he should be allowed to charge the same reasonable increase? [An HON. MEMBER: "He would be very glad to do so."] I know he would, but he would probably be prosecuted by the Board of Trade. They would not prosecute the millers. Imagine the President of the Board of Trade taking out a summons against the chairman of the Millers' Association or saying "We will fine you £100 if you do not stop it." They would merely laugh at it. These are the people who are going to advise the Government as to what is a reasonable price. When they want to know what is a reasonable price of import, the Board of Trade will ask these very people. They have no other method of getting the information. Why not tell the Department to find out the world price and then control imports? That would be a reasonable way of doing it. You cannot expect those who believe in the speculative system of society to take a reasonable course, because, once you show people that it was necessary in an emergency to prevent exploitation of the public, the general consuming public will say, "The sooner we get rid of this system and have a regulated system the better," and you will have no more room for your party politics on the other side.
889 Where is the President of the Board of Trade going to get his information in regard to the price of imported wheat? Is he going to get it from the importers, and are they going to tell him what is a reasonable price? If so, they will get away with the benefit of the rate of exchange. They will say, "Here is what we are charging," and you cannot stop an increase in price and you cannot stop everyone else saying, "We have only charged a reasonable increase on what it costs us."
The Government take no action to see that the cost of the import is kept reasonable as compared with to-day's price. In other words, they are going to ignore the biggest evil and to attack the smallest. If the Government are not prepared to set up a board to fix prices of commodities at what they fetch in the
§ world market, and pass on reasonable charges, the Bill is useless. You can prosecute the little man as much as you like, but prices will go up and everyone will say, "I have only charged a reasonable price beyond what I have paid to the wholesaler or the importer." This is a piece of window-dressing and bluff, and it will not save unreasonable charges being demanded of consumers.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the TREASURY (Commander Sir Bolton Eyres Monsen) rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put."
§ Question put, "That the Question be now put."
§ The House divided: Ayes, 209; Noes, 64.891
|Division No. 519.]||AYES.||[7.27 p.m.|
|Acland-Troyte, Lieut.-Colonel||Davison, Sir W. H. (Kensington, S.)||Hutchison, Maj.-Gen. Sir R.|
|Ainsworth, Lieut.-Col. Charles||Dawson, Sir Philip||Jones, Llewellyn-, F.|
|Aitchlson, Rt. Hon. Craigle M.||Denman, Hon. R. D.||Jones, Henry Haydn (Merioneth)|
|Albery, Irving James||Dlxey, A. C.||Jones, Rt. Hon. Leif (Camborne)|
|Alexander, Sir Wm. (Glasgow, Cent'l)||Duckworth, G. A. V.||Jowitt, Rt. Hon. Sir W. A. (Preston)|
|Allen, Sir J. Sandeman (Liverp'l., W.)||Dudgeon, Major C. R.||Kedward, R. M. (Kent, Ashford)|
|Amery, Rt. Hon. Leopold C. M. S.||Dugdale, Capt. T. L.||Kindersley, Major G. M.|
|Aske, Sir Robert||Eden, Captain Anthony||Knox, Sir Alfred|
|Atholl, Duchess of||Edmondson, Major A. J.||Lamb, Sir J. Q.|
|Atkinson, C.||Evans, Capt. Ernest (Welsh Unives.)||Lambert, Rt. Hon. George (S. Molton)|
|Baldwin, Rt. Hon. Stanley (Bewdley)||Falle, Sir Bertram G.||Latham, H. P. (Scarboro' & Whitby)|
|Balfour, Captain H. H. (I. of Thanet)||Ferguson, Sir John||Leighton, Major B. E. P.|
|Bellairs, Commander Carlyon||Fielden, E. B.||Lewis, Oswald (Colchester)|
|Bennett, Sir E. N. (Cardiff, Central)||Foot, Isaac||Llewellin, Major J. J.|
|Bevan, S. J. (Holborn)||Ford, Sir P. J.||Lockwood, Captain J. H.|
|Birkett, W. Norman||Forestler-Walker, Sir L.||Long, Major Hon. Eric|
|Bowyer, Captain Sir George E. W.||Forgan, Dr. Robert||Lovat-Fraser, J. A.|
|Bracken, B.||Fremantle, Lieut.-Colonel Francis E.||Lymington, Viscount|
|Braithwaite, Major A. N.||Galbraith, J. F. W.||MacDonald, Rt. Hon. J. R. (Seaham)|
|Broadbent, Colonel J.||Ganzonl, Sir John||MacDonald, Malcolm (Gassetlaw)|
|Brown, Brig.-Gen.H.C.(Berks, Newb'y)||George, Major G. Lloyd (Pembroke)||Macdonald, Sir M. (Inverness)|
|Buchan, John||George, Megan Lloyd (Anglesea)||Macdonald, Capt. P. D. (I. of W.)|
|Buchan-Hepburn, P. G. T.||Gillett, George M.||Maclean, Sir Donald (Cornwall, N.)|
|Bullock, Captain Malcolm||Gilmour, Lt.-Col. Rt. Hon. Sir John||Macpherson, Rt. Hon. James I.|
|Burton, Colonel H. W.||Glassey, A. E.||Maitland, A. (Kent, Faversham)|
|Butler, R. A.||Glyn, Major R. G. C.||Makins, Brigadier-General E.|
|Butt, Sir Alfred||Gower, Sir Robert||Mander, Geoffrey le M.|
|Cadogan, Major Hon. Edward||Graham, Fergus (Cumberland, N.)||Markham, S. F.|
|Campbell, E. T.||Granville, E.||Merriman, Sir F. Boyd|
|Carver, Major W. H.||Grattan-Doyle, Sir N.||Milne, Wardlaw-, J. S.|
|Cecil, Rt. Hon. Lord H. (Ox. Univ.)||Gray, Milner||Mitchell, Sir W. Lane (Streatham)|
|Chadwick, Capt. Sir Robert Burton||Greaves-Lord, Sir Walter||Monsell, Eyres, Com. Rt. Hon. Sir B.|
|Chamberlain,Rt.Hn.Sir J.A.(Birm.,W.)||Greene, W. P. Crawford||Moore, Lieut.-Colonel T. C. R. (Ayr)|
|Chamberlain, Rt. Hon. N. (Edgbaston)||Griffith, F. Kingsley (Middlesbro' W.)||Morris, Rhys Hopkins|
|Churchill, Rt. Hon. Winston Spencer||Gritten, W. G. Howard||Morris-Jones, Dr. J. H. (Denbigh)|
|Cobb, Sir Cyril||Gunston, Captain D. W.||Muirhead, A. J.|
|Colman, N. C. D.||Hacking, Rt. Hon. Douglas H.||Nail-Caln, A. R. N.|
|Colville, Major D. J.||Hall, Lieut.-Col. Sir F. (Dulwich)||Newman, Sir R. H. S. D. L. (Exeter)|
|Conway, Sir W. Martin||Hamilton, Sir R. (Orkney & Zetland)||Nicholson, O. (Westminster)|
|Cooper, A. Duff||Hanbaury, C.||Nicholson, Col. Rt. Hn.W. G.(Ptrsf'ld)|
|Courthope, Colonel Sir G. L.||Harbord, A.||O'Connor, T. J.|
|Cowan, D. M.||Harris, Percy A.||Oliver, P. M. (Man., Blackley)|
|Cranborne, Viscount||Hartington, Marquess of||Oman, Sir Charles William C.|
|Crichton Stuart, Lord C.||Harvey, Major S. E. (Devon, Totnes)||Ormsby-Gore, Rt. Hon. William|
|Crookshank, Capt. H. C.||Henderson, Capt. R. R. (Oxf'd,Henley)||Owen, Major G. (Carnarvon)|
|Croom-Johnson, R. P.||Heneage, Lieut.-Col Arthur P.||Owen, H. F. (Hereford)|
|Culverwell, C. T. (Bristol, West)||Hennessy, Major Sir G. R. J||Peake, Capt. Osbert|
|Cunliffe-Lister, Rt. Hon. Sir Philip||Hills, Major Rt. Hon. John Waller||Penny, Sir George|
|Davidson, Rt. Hon. J. (Hertford)||Howard-Bury, Colonel C. K.||Percy, Lord Eustace (Hastings)|
|Davies, Dr. Vernon||Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hackney, N.)||Peters, Dr. Sidney John|
|Davies, E. C. (Montgomery)||Hunter, Dr. Joseph||Peto, Sir Basil E. (Devon, Barnstaple)|
|Davies, Maj. Geo. F.(Somerset,Yeovil)||Hurd, Percy A.||Power, Sir John Cecil|
|Preston, Sir Walter Rueben||Shakespeare, Geoffrey H.||Train, J.|
|Purbrick, R.||Simon, Rt. Hon. Sir John||Tryon, Rt. Hon. George Clement|
|Pybus, Percy John||Sinclair, Rt. Hon. Sir A. (Caithness)||Turton, Robert Hugh|
|Ramsay, T. S. Wilson||Skelton, A. N.||Vaughan-Morgan, Sir Kenyon|
|Ramsbotham, H.||Smith, R. W.(Aberd'n & Kinc'dlne, C.)||Wallace, Capt. D. E. (Hornsey)|
|Rathbone, Eleanor||Smith-Carington, Neville W.||Warrender, Sir Victor|
|Rawson, Sir Cooper||Smithers, Waldron||Waterhouse, Captain Charles|
|Remer, John R.||Snowden, Rt. Hon, Philip||Wayland, Sir William A.|
|Rentoul, Sir Gervals S.||Somerville, A. A. (Windsor)||White, H. G.|
|Reynolds, Col. Sir James||Southby, Commander A R. J.||Windsor-Clive, Lieut.-Colonel George|
|Rhys, Hon. C. A. U.||Stanley, Lord (Fylde)||Winterton, Rt. Hon. Earl|
|Rodd, Rt. Hon. Sir James Rennell||Stanley, Hon. O. (Westmorland)||Withers, Sir John James|
|Rosbotham, D. S. T.||Stewart, W. J. (Belfast South)||Womersley, W. J.|
|Ross, Ronald D.||Thomas, Rt. Hon. J. H. (Derby)||Wood, Rt. Hon. Sir Kingsley|
|Russell, Richard John (Eddisbury)||Thomas, Major L. B. (King's Norton)||Wright, Brig.-Gen. W. D. (Tavist'k)|
|Samuel, A. M. (Surrey, Farnham)||Thomson, Sir F.|
|Samuel, Rt. Hon. Sir H. (Darwen)||Thomson, Mitchell-, Rt. Hon. Sir W.||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—|
|Samuel, Samuel (W'dsworth, Putney)||Titchfield, Major the Marquess of||Captain Margesson and Viscount|
|Savery, S. S.||Todd, Capt. A. J.||Elmley.|
|Adamson, Rt. Hon. W. (Fife, West)||Haycock, A. W.||Perry, S. F.|
|Alexander, Rt. Hon. A. V. (Hillsbro')||Hayes, John Henry||Richardson, R. (Houghton-le-Spring)|
|Attlee, Clement Richard||Herriotts, J.||Samuel, H. Walter (Swansea, West)|
|Baldwin, Oliver (Dudley)||Hoffman, P. C.||Sanders, W. S.|
|Bennett, William (Battersea, South)||Jenkins, Sir William||Sawyer, G. F.|
|Benson, G.||Kelly, W. T.||Scurr John|
|Bevan, Aneurin (Ebbw Vale)||Kennedy, Rt. Hon. Thomas||Shillaker, J. F.|
|Bromfield, William||Lee, Frank (Derby, N.E.)||Short, Alfred (Wednesbury)|
|Brown, W. J. (Wolverhampton, West)||Lees, J.||Simmons, C. J.|
|Carter, W. (St. Pancras, S.W.)||Logan, David Gilbert||Smith, Frank (Nuneaton)|
|Clarke, J. S.||Longden, F.||Strauss, G. R.|
|Daggar, George||Maclean, Nell (Glasgow, Govan)||Taylor, R. A. (Lincoln)|
|Day, Harry||MacNeill-Weir, L.||Taylor, W. B. (Norfolk, S.W.)|
|Ede, James Chuter||Marley, J.||Wallace, H. W.|
|Edwards, C. (Monmouth, Bedwellty)||Middleton, G.||Watts-Morgan, Lt.-Col. D. (Rhondda)|
|Gardner, B. W. (West Ham, Upton)||Morgan, Dr. H. B.||Welsh, James (Paisley)|
|Gardner, J. P. (Hammersmith, N.)||Morrison, Robert C. (Tottenham, N.)||Whiteley, Wilfrid (Birm., Ladywood)|
|Grenfell, D. R. (Glamorgan)||Mort, D. L.||Williams, E. J. (Ogmore)|
|Griffiths, T. (Monmouth, Pontypool)||Muggeridge, H. T.||Wilson, C. H. (Sheffield, Attercliffe)|
|Hamilton, Mary Agnes (Blackburn)||Noel-Buxton, Baroness (Norfolk, N.)||Winterton, G. E.(Leicester,Loughb'gh)|
|Hardle, David (Rutherglen)||Oldfleld, J. R.|
|Hardle, G. D. (Springburn)||Palln, John Henry||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—|
|Mr. T. Henderson and Mr. Thurtle.|
Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put accordingly, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Sir P. Cunliffe-Lister.]