§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.36 a.m.
§ Mr. Woods
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
1256 This Bill is substantially the same as that which was before the House in 1931, received a Second Reading, and was in the Committee stage when the then Government fell. Otherwise, there is little doubt, I think, that it would have become law and would now be in operation, and that the experience of its operation would have convinced everybody of its desirability. It may be argued that since then there has been a considerable amount of legislation covering some commodities, especially the agricultural and other marketing Acts, but any unprejudiced examination of the working of those Acts must convince one that they have made it more necessary than ever that there should be such a council as is proposed in this Bill to safeguard the consumers' interests. It is many years ago since the Royal Commission on Food Prices recommended that a statutory body should be set up to deal with food prices, and that it should have the power to compel the giving of information. In 1925 the voluntary Food Council was set up, but it had no statutory basis and no effective power for obtaining information. It is not, therefore, surprising that it should have been in practice decorative rather than effective.
The purpose of this Bill is to achieve what in theory was assumed to be the result of the setting up of that Council. Time does not permit of a detailed explanation of the Bill, and happily I do not think it is necessary because of its simplicity. Its function is to provide for the constitution of a Consumers' Council, to define the powers and duties of that council, to enable the Board of Trade to regulate by order the prices to be charged for certain commodities and the charges to be made in respect of sales thereof. The Consumers' Council consists of seven members who will be appointed by the Board of Trade, two of them being women. The Bill also provides that the Board of Trade may appoint for any special investigation any person with particular qualifications for such investigation, and the power of the council is restricted to actually reporting to the Board of Trade. The power of enforcement is conferred upon the Board of Trade subject to the approval of Parliament. Clause 6 deals with the enforcement of the provisions of the Bill, which will be largely done through the existing 1257 machinery of inspectors and local authorities. I find that in previous discussions that aspect of the Bill was not seriously criticised.
The major arguments for the Bill must be obvious to any impartial mind. Commodity prices are the major concern in the majority of homes, and it is not unreasonable to expect that this constant and important concern should become a matter of continuous and serious concern for Members of this House. It is important to remind ourselves that the incomes of the majority of the population are rigidly limited. One thinks of the appalling and tragic fact that no fewer than 2,000,000 people are unemployed and are expected to manage on very restricted incomes. There are, too, the old age pensioners who have in their latter days a struggle to make ends meet; while the bulk of employed workers, even if their work is regular, have a serious problem each week to meet the cost of living. Any increase in prices creates a problem for many thousands of men and women. An illustration was brought to my notice some time ago of a working widow woman with two children. She had carefully made out her order and had come to the point of paying the bill, when she was informed that the total amount was a few coppers more than she had budgeted for. The shop assistant kindly explained to her that bacon had gone up. The woman was in a dilemma, and asked the assistant not to pack the things because she would have to go through her order carefully to see what she could do without, because she had a maximum spending power and a few coppers more presented her with a serious problem.
The realisation of this concern of making ends meet which is week by week a problem in every home, should bring home to the House the necessity for some effective assurance that the consumer is getting the maximum value for money. It may be argued that the provisions already made in Section 9 of the Agricultural Marketing Act, 1931, does all that could be desired as far as agricultural products are concerned. This is an illustration of the futility of the existing machinery. Under the Agricultural Marketing Act there is set up a Consumers' Committee. Incidentally, the personnel of that committee is identical with that of the Food Council. This committee is 1258 supplemented by a Committee of Investigation. The Consumers' Committee issues reports, but for a long time no notice whatever has been taken of them. One can only conclude that the outstanding case, which has become a classic example of its attempt to function, was so unsatisfactory that since then it has satisfied itself with merely making reports. The occasion when the committee took action was when there was a dispute about the commencement of the winter price for milk. It was argued that milk should go up on 1st August to 7d. per quart. Inquiries were made and it was found that there was really no justification for this increase, but although protests were made and the then President of the Board of Trade interviewed various bodies concerned, both producers and retailers, nothing happened.
On the one outstanding occasion when this Committee of Investigation attempted to function, its efforts were equally unavailing, or almost so. It was in 1935–1936, when the Milk Board prescribed a contract price of 15s. 6d. per dozen gallons for liquid milk. An inquiry was held and went on for nine months after the beginning of the contract year, and it involved considerable legal expenses, somewhere in the neighbourhood of £40,000. Then, nine months after the start of the contract year, the Minister was able finally to settle the contract price at 15s. 3d. per dozen gallons. It may be argued that there was some slight achievement there, but on more than one occasion since the Milk Board have increased the price of liquid milk, and there has been no further action by the investigation committee, one can only conclude that there were submerged in milk. Instead of disputing the decisions of the Milk Board retailers now accept them, or at least submit to them, and confine their attention to the task of securing for themselves a sufficient margin over the wholesale price. Is it, therefore, surprising that milk is more expensive in this country than almost anywhere else in the world, or in Europe certainly, and that as a consequence the consumption of milk is low, in spite of the fact that a considerable sum is squandered upon attempts to popularise it? Far more effective than publicity as a means of increasing the consumption of milk would be a reduction in the price.
1259 I will not detain the House further on that subject, because other hon. Members may desire to relate their experiences under other marketing Acts, but I will give two illustrations showing how modern legislation has affected consumers' interests. The Sugar Industry Reorganisation Act amalgamated all the home sugar beet factories into a Sugar Beet Corporation, and provision was made for the registration of refiners of imported raw sugar. It is now practically impossible for any newcomer to enter the refining industry. A financial arrangement between the Corporation and refiners results in what is, in practice, a monopoly. There is no effective competition, and no machinery to secure that the farmer gets a fair price for his beet—and farmers are greatly concerned at the thought that they are tied down to the lowest possible figure—while, on the other hand, the price of sugar is maintained at a figure which puts it in the realm of a luxury article for a considerable percentage of the population. The other illustration, is provided by the working of the pig and bacon marketing schemes. I will not go into details, because the matter has been discussed in the House at such length that Members will be familiar with the facts, but the net result of those schemes has been a reduced consumption of bacon, consequent upon a decline in the quality and an increase in the price. I state it thus baldly, because put in that way I am sure that the statement cannot be disputed.
Turning to the type of criticism which a Bill like this encounters, I have read very carefully the long Debates upon the earlier Bill, and was not surprised to find that the major criticism of the proposal—coming, as it was assumed, from Socialists —was that it would involve the country in a good deal of bureaucracy. In the light of subsequent events one cannot help smiling at the thought that we on this side should be charged with burdening industry with bureaucracy. It would be very helpful to some hon. Members opposite, especially those on the front bench, if they read some of their speeches and criticised themselves as effectively as they criticised the President of the Board of Trade in 1930–31. As a matter of fact, this Bill will set up machinery which will provide some defence against bureaucratic action under the procedure instituted by 1260 this present Government. Those who are opposed to the dangers of bureaucracy should support this Bill.
I was not surprised, also, to find that the small trader has loomed very large in these Debates. The earlier Bill was described as setting up a new Star Chamber and instituting a new despotism, and so forth. Nothing is further from the intentions of this Bill. Those of us who know the retail trade know that traders are already sufficiently harassed, but every private trader is also a consumer, and in that capacity will have an interest in this Bill. We speak of a dictatorship, but I will quote one problem which confronts many honest traders. The power to fix prices does not originate in this Bill; there will be a minimum of interference, and then only interference by the Board of Trade with the approval of this House when it has been proved that prices are excessive. The retail prices of a considerable percentage of commodities are already fixed, though retail traders have no say in the matter.
Since this Bill was originally brought forward, there have arisen cut-price stores. On the one hand there is the respectable, old-established trader who draws his supplies from his wholesaler in the normal way and is compelled to sell his goods at a fixed price, irrespective of any desire he may have in the matter. The profits allowed him are generally very satisfactory. A few door away is another shop where the identical commodities, bearing the same labels, are on sale at a slightly lower price. The old-established trader takes up the matter with his wholesaler and points out that while he is compelled to sell at a fixed price, the other trader is selling lower. Generally he can get no redress. If he tells the wholesaler that he will reduce his prices to those of his competitor, he is informed point blank that should he do so his supplies will be cut off. The great problem is to find the source of the supplies of those traders who are under-cutting, and I suggest that wisely used—perhaps after some amendments in Committee—this Bill will give power to investigate the sources of those supplies and in that way bring about much more honest trading. There is a fairly common view abroad that not infrequently such supplies have been come by dishonestly.
1261 On the occasion of the previous Debate the present Secretary for the Overseas Trade Department opposed the Bill because he said he was afraid of the extraordinary powers that would be given to the Board of Trade. Now he himself is in that Department, and I hope that he realises the necessity for such extraordinary powers. Only recently we had the pleasure of listening to the right hon. Gentleman himself make a very emphatic speech in which it was made clear to the world that the whole resources of the British Government and the financial power of this country would be mobilised—what for? To enable British traders to sell British products on the world market at, if necessary ridiculously low prices. In other words, extraordinary power would be taken, and no end of pains, all our resources being mobilised, to sell goods in the foreign markets cheaply. All that we ask is that this tremendous enthusiasm should be used in another direction. How much more responsible are we, as representatives of the people, for seeing that our own people get the best value for their money. It seems to me to follow as a matter of logic and of moral principle.
Another criticism made on the previous occasion was by the President of the Board of Trade. He opposed the Bill on what were mainly grounds of suspicion. We have heard a great deal lately of the tragic problem of suspicion, and it is about time that we began to get above suspicion and to face the fact that many people in this country suffer great hardship in trying to make ends meet. The health of the people would benefit if they were able to get better food value for their money than they get at the present time. The right hon. Gentleman objected that he did not like the horse and did not like the stable. We are quite satisfied that the present Board of Trade should have their own horse as long as it will do the job and pull the load of those whose backs are broken by the crushing burden of the cost of living. The right hon. Gentleman said, also, that he realised that there was a problem which would have to be faced sooner or later. The case for the Bill is that we have progressed far enough in the present direction. Legislation passed since the previous Debate has increased rather than eased the burden of the cost of living, and we appeal to the Government to give 1262 practical effect to their appreciation that there is a problem that sooner or later will have to be faced. We ask the present Government to face that problem. In peace time, a council such as is proposed would be desirable, but in the event of war the powers which the Bill would give to the Board of Trade would be vitally necessary.
§ 11.59 a.m.
§ Mr. Marshall
I beg to second the Motion.
After the admirable presentation of the principles of the Bill by my hon. Friend there is very little need for me to make a speech. The Bill is simple. It provides for a Consumers' Council to investigate the conditions of production in cases where they think that an excessive price is being charged. They would have no penalty powers, but they could report to the Board of Trade, and the Department could then make orders which would have to be laid before this House. The proposals of the Bill appear to provide safeguards against any abuse. There is great need for legislation on these lines. Last year we listened to an admirable speech from these benches on the question of rising food prices, when my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Tomlinson) introduced a Motion and, in the course of his speech, proved conclusively that there was great need for watchful care with regard to the rising food prices of the country. He gave striking illustrations to show that many of the staple foods were rising to prices which made it difficult for housewives to make ends meet.
Since then, a number of the Bills have been introduced by the Government to deal with agricultural problems, and nearly all were designed to provide a reasonable price for the producer. Only yesterday a Bill of that description was presented to the House from that side, and the thought struck me then that the object of all Bills of that character is to guarantee a price to the producer. We have no objection to that being done, because we all agree that if the producer puts good work into his product he is entitled to an adequate reward. The inevitable corollary seems to be that there should be similar Bills to provide that the consumer is not mulcted by an increase in prices. This very small Bill may be 1263 described as a consumers' Bill to prevent excessive charges being made upon the consumer. It will safeguard the homes of the country in the same way that the Government are trying to safeguard the interests of the producers.
Some of the Bills introduced by the Government dealing with agricultural matters have provided for a subsidy, but this House must not forget that such subsidies come out of the pockets of the taxpayers, and that the poor people pay part of that subsidy. If the poor people are contributing to a guaranteed price for the producers they have the right to expect that the Government will safeguard their interests as consumers. This Bill would be a safeguard against high prices. It is a worthy little Bill, and its passing would give a great deal of confidence to the consumers of the country.
§ 12.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Donner
I beg to move, to leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:this House recognises the value to the consumers of the inquiries made from time to time by the Food Council with the co-operation of traders, takes note that powers to obtain information in regard to the commodities described in the Bill are already available should they be necessary under the Tribunals of Enquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921, and declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which would jeopardize the good relations between the Food Council and the traders and set up a cumbersome, dilatory and rigid system for dealing with commodities difficult to define and constantly fluctuating in costs, supply and demand.The Mover and Seconder of the Second Reading of the Bill criticised some of the legislation passed in recent years by this Government, but they said very little about the Bill which they were presenting to us. They did not put forward the chief merit, if any, of the Bill. In my opinion, if the Bill were to become law it would result in a greater increase in emigration from this country than has resulted from any other Measure since the War. I might have more sympathy with the Bill if it were called an Emergency Emigration (Enabling) Bill. It would lead to such insufferable conditions for many of our traders and shopkeepers that they would be filled with only one desire, which would be to quit these shores and settle overseas. Therefore, 1264 while one could have had sympathy with the Bill on these grounds, I must say that one would have preferred to see a rather loftier motive in the minds of our people who decide to settle in the Empire overseas.
This Bill is identical with the Bill which was presented by the last Socialist Government in 1930, was then withdrawn, and was re-introduced in 1931. One may question what purpose can be served by bringing in again a Bill which eight or nine years ago was found to be not only foolish, but a thoroughly bad Bill, and which became the subject of ridicule, not only on the Floor of this House, but in Committee upstairs. Some of us on this side have nourished the illusion that with the passing of the years hon. Members opposite might become more open to reason, but when a Bill, which the House examined eight years ago, is re-introduced with no new Clauses, no new ideas, no original contribution, but a mere reproduction of something that has already been discussed, it becomes clear that hon. Members opposite are as impervious to reason as ever they were. What object is to be served by the mere repetition of arguments which were used all those years ago? Is this the best use to which the time of Parliament can be put? Some of them have already been repeated here to-day, though for my part I will endeavour to do so as little as possible.
I listened very carefully to the speech of the Mover of the Bill. I venture to suggest that it is of no assistance to this House to assert that in the opinion of certain persons excessive prices are being charged for certain articles or in certain cases. The question which the House has to decide is not whether there is too great a gap between the price which the producer obtains for his goods and the price which the consumer has to pay for them. What we have to decide in this House to-day is whether or not the Bill will provide a remedy for that situation. It is of no use to describe, as the Mover of the Bill did just now, the hardships of consumers and the difficulties to housewives, without saying at all what will be the effect of this Bill upon industry, and without, apparently, realising that the Bill will provide no solution at all for the difficulties of the housewife.
1265 I believe that the majority of our shopkeepers and traders are honest people. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I am glad that hon. Members agree with that view, because, if they did not, their attitude would not bring them very much credit. But if they do subscribe to that view, they are proposing a remedy to deal with an admitted minority which will involve interference with, interrogation of, and great vexation to an admitted honest majority. An inquisition is to be set up. An official of the Consumers' Council will have the right to demand to see books, accounts and everything else under the sun, at a time when, perhaps, the trader is busily at work. That is a type of interference which exists already in many countries abroad, and traders in those countries will tell hon. Members as they have told me how vexatious and annoying are these acts of interference, and how difficult it is to continue trade under those conditions. To deal with an admitted minority, the party opposite propose a remedy which we believe, in the light of our own experience, and particularly our war-time experience, will result, not in lower, but in higher prices. We believe that this Bill is calculated to produce an effect exactly contrary to that which is desired.
The Mover of the Bill had to prove two things in his speech. He had to show, not only that legislation was necessary, but that this Bill would provide an effective remedy for the situation which he described. I, for one, am bound to say that I was not satisfied that he succeeded in either attempt. I believe that the housewife is far more capable of dealing with the minority who charge too high prices, if they do, than a Government Department, because she has the remedy in her own hands; after all, she can avoid dealing at shops which charge higher prices than are justifiable or are charged elsewhere.
I would draw the attention of the House to a very significant admission made by the late Mr. William Graham when, as President of the Board of Trade, he moved the Second Reading of this Measure on 8th May, 1930. This is what he said:May I make it perfectly plain that if the Government were setting out economically to try to fix a price for every individual commodity or class of commodity in this country, we should be embarking economically upon an impossible task?1266 He went on to say:There can be no effectual control of prices in this or in any other land unless we either Own or control supplies."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th May, 1930; cols. 1174–5, Vol. 238.]The facts are of course that we do not either own or control supplies. In this Island we never shall own or control supplies, and, therefore, when the late Mr. William Graham introduced this Measure to the House, he admitted at the outset that the Bill would not achieve the object which ostensibly it set out to attain. He knew that very well, and hon. Members opposite know it very well too. What purpose, then, is there in introducing a Measure which those responsible for it admit at the very beginning cannot possibly secure the object which it sets out to secure? I am tempted to suspect, though I admit that temptation can always be resisted, that the real motive underlying this Bill is so to interfere with the normal flow of trade that conditions and circumstances will arise whereby such confusion will be created that people will feel that the only solution is to be found in establishing State Socialism. If that is not an accurate interpretation, I hope that hon. Members who will speak later from the opposite side of the House will tell me exactly what other interpretation it is possible to apply.
§ Mr. A. V. Alexander
May I ask the hon. Member how he reconciles that argument with the fact that he supports the Government in schemes of currency maintenance, price insurance, and price fixing?
§ Mr. Donner
I think there is a misconception in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman. The legislation that the present Government have passed since 1931 has been passed in an endeavour to improve the price to the producer, whereas hon. Members opposite are trying to fix prices with a view to reducing them in order to assist the consumer—a completely different point of view. [Interruption.] I will come later, if hon. Members will bear with me, to the question of the producer and the question of distribution, which this Bill does not touch at all, but let me say that if you fail to fix a price satisfactory to the producer he ceases to produce.
The aspect of the Bill which I would like to emphasise and which, I hope, the electorate will note, is the cavalier 1267 treatment which hon. Members opposite are prepared to extend to their fellow citizens. The hon. Member who moved the Second Reading of the Bill said that eight years ago we took exception to the fact that the Bill established bureaucratic and despotic control. This Bill would do more. It would hamstring Parliament. If any hon. Member doubts that assertion, I would ask him to look at Schedule 2, which is the very essence of the Bill. The Schedule lays down the procedure under which arbitrary powers would be employed to fix prices, over not only a wide but an indefinite range of commodities, which would include not less than half the commodities consumed by the public. Be it noted at the outset that under Schedule 2, unless both Houses of Parliament object to an order made by the President of the Board of Trade, the Order takes effect.
Schedule 2 lays down the normal procedure, but I would like to point out that the President of the Board of Trade is in a position to dispense entirely with the normal procedure, because he is in a position to issue an emergency Order. He can do so without giving 21 days' notice to the persons affected; he can do so without giving any opportunity for protests to be made or representations to be made; he can do so without listening to representations; he can do so without paying any attention to them at all. He can do so without the sanction of Parliament. It is perfectly true that an emergency Order comes to an end automatically after two months' time, but the President of the Board of Trade has power under the Schedule to renew that Order, provided it contains some minor alteration, perhaps wholly insignificant, and he can continue this process of renewal indefinitely and fix the price of commodity after commodity. He can do more: he can flout the will of Parliament. Under the Schedule the President of the Board of Trade has the power of reversing and altering the decision of Parliament by issuing a new emergency Order, which in turn he need not lay before Parliament for its approval.
To those of us who care for liberty, to those of us who believe that democracy is more than a phrase, this Bill is recognised for what it is, a source of injustice and not of relief to any portion of the community. It is perfectly 1268 true that in war-time people will accept interference and restrictions, but there is no reason why our people should be subjected to objectionable and inappropriate restrictions and interference when this country is not at war but at peace.
Adam Smith said that prices are fixed by a combination of wages, profits arid rent, to which I suppose in these days we would add another constituent, taxation. We believe on this side that if there is an overcharge free competition will correct it. Certainly this Bill is the very negation of that freedom of trade which hon. Members opposite professed in the past whatever they may do now. Certainly I have never noticed any unwillingness on the part of co-operative societies to compete with the private trader, wherever they can. Therefore, I say that if there is an overcharge made by any particular shopkeeper or any particular trader, competition will correct it.
Let the House consider the effects of an error of judgment committed by the President of the Board of Trade under this Bill. If a price were fixed too high, then the object of the Bill would be defeated. If, on the other hand, the price is fixed too low, enterprise is discouraged, the investment of capital is discouraged, and above all the re-organisation of distribution is discouraged, and it is only by the re-organisation and modernisation of distribution that costs can be reduced in a normal way. In the Debate of May, 1930, the late Mr. Wise—not to be confused with my hon. Friend who is to second the Amendment—
§ Mr. Charles Brown
Is the hon. Member speaking in favour of re-organisation or of the small trader?
§ Mr. Donner
I am speaking against the Bill and I hope I am making myself plain. The late Mr. Wise, speaking in a Debate in this House in May, 1930, said this, and as he was a supporter of the Socialist Government I hope hon. Members will pay attention to what he said:Its powers are limited to examining costs, prices, and profits as they are. But the real complaint in many of the distributive trades is not that the individual traders are getting too much, but that there are too many of them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th May, 1930; col. 1194, Vol. 238.]That touches the heart of the problem. But it is equally plain that this Bill does not touch it at all. If you fix a price 1269 too low, the article disappears. If any hon. Member will read the Debates of 1930–31 he will see references made to the situation created when the price of rabbits was fixed in January, 1918. A price was fixed and the rabbits disappeared altogether; not a single self-respecting rabbit allowed itself to be caught. I think one may argue with justice that even dear goods are better than none. If the price is fixed too low by the President of the Board of Trade, if an error of judgment is committed, the whole flow of trade is paralysed. What hon. Members opposite fail to appreciate is that you cannot compel a trade to sell without profit, and if you fail to fix a price which will satisfy the producer, then the producer ceases to produce. That elementary law has surely been proved up to the hilt in Russia. The moment that situation arises there is a shortage created and up goes the price and there occurs the very thing that hon. Members opposite profess to try to prevent, namely, higher and not lower prices. If, however, you fix the price on the lines suggested, there is bound to be a reduction of quality and a limitation of choice. If you tell a producer that he cannot obtain more than a certain fixed price for a commodity which he sells, quite clearly he is not going to trouble to produce superior qualities when he is not to receive a greater sum of money for those superior qualities. Sir William Beveridge, in his book "British Food Control," says:Control involved a diminished regard for quality. The better quality could no longer command a special price and ceased to be produced.I do not think any one will deny that our war-time experience showed that it was only possible and practicable to control a certain number of articles and a certain number of trades. Tea, for instance, became reduced to a standard blend. My submission is that the people of this country do not want a standard blend or a standard quality; they want the blend and quality to which they have always been accustomed. They desire, and indeed consume, an infinite range of commodities. Any curtailment—curtailment is inevitable under a Bill of this description—of opportunity to buy a great variety of goods and commodities cannot but incur the displeasure of our people. I can see no reason why our people should put up with any such system I cannot see that any adequate 1270 reason has been given for fixing prices by the Board of Trade by this brutal method.
§ Mr. Donner
That is a different subject and not the subject under discussion. The mover of the Bill drew attention to the constitution of the proposed Council. He pointed out that it would consist of seven persons, two of whom are to be women. He did not mention that they are to be appointed by the President of the Board of Trade, and dismissed by the President of the Board of Trade: in other words, that they are not to be a free jury of citizens. They will not be imbued with the impartiality of His Majesty's judges. As likely as not, they will be a picked body of persons, who will set out to ascertain the cost of distribution, and what, in their opinion, the consumer should pay, and will then fix the price with which they think the producer should be content. What are to be the qualifications of these seven amenable nominees of the President of the Board of Trade? The mover was careful not to say that, under Clause 1, Sub-section 6 it is specifically laid down that they are to have no practical knowledge of the matter they are to investigate: in other words, the extent of their ignorance is to be the basis of their qualifications.
I believe that what hon. Members opposite are getting at is not really the question of price but of profit. I never have shared their prejudice against the conception of profit. Profit is responsible for the expansion of industry and employment. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) who said some years ago that the real crime is not the making of profits but the making of losses. When a firm makes losses, for the sake of argument through bad management, a number of perfectly innocent persons who happen to be shareholders or employees suffer in consequence. Losses therefore not profits should be deplored. But if, in fact, it were feasible substantially to reduce the margin of profit over a vast range of commodities, as hon. Members opposite hope to do, the whole question of State expenditure would have to be overhauled, and we should have to consider whether we could maintain the social services at the level at which we maintain them now, and at which we claim to maintain them 1271 in the future. If hon. Members look at the Debates which took place eight years ago, they will find a very interesting speech by Sir Charles Oman. He drew attention to the fact that nowadays it takes longer to do a job than it used to take before the War, and he said that this was "profiteering in time." If there was, for instance, some small matter to be undertaken, such as mending a pipe, two men would come along, and he would be charged for two men's work for half a day. That, he said, was "profiteering in time." This Bill, of course, has nothing to say on that score at all. It pays no heed to that problem. In Turkey it has been dealt with by paying a man according to his skill—paying him a wage commensurate with his experience, on the assumption that a man with longer experience has greater skill and will do a job more efficiently and in less time. The alternative method is to establish piece work wages. I am not advocating such a change in the method of paying wages in this country, but I say that is the kind of consideration that should be borne in mind when examining this Bill. If hon. Members will look at Clause 5 they will find what I think even they must admit is a gem. In Sub-section (2) they will see:A recommendation made by the Council under this section shall describe with precision—But if they read a little further they will see:
- (a) the commodity to which the recommendation applies;
- (b) the class of person to which, in the opinion of the Council, any order made by the Board should apply; and
- (c) the area within which, in the opinion of the Council, any such order should operate, …"No objection shall be taken by any person on the ground of any alleged lack of precision in any such recommendation to any order made, …If that is not the quintessence of humbug, what is? It is a complete admission that you cannot, in fact, operate this Bill at all. It was stated on 27th October, 1937, that hon. Members opposite were guilty of inconsistency when they abused the Governments of Italy and Germany, because those two Governments, almost alone on the Continent, had put into practice State socialism, with all that regimentation of and interference with 1272 the civil population which is anathema to the Conservative party and the very marrow of Socialist doctrine. I agree with that statement; I think it contains elements of wisdom, though I will admit it was not appreciated by hon. Members opposite, and I will agree that it was said by the hon. Member for Basingstoke. But how can they deny the truth of that assertion after they re-introduce a Bill which establishes despotic control, bureaucratic control and control with no responsibility, and, whatever else it may contain, is not in line with that conception of freedom and individual liberty which to us is the essence and meaning of democracy.
§ 12.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Wise
I beg to second the Amendment.
I confess that I felt some surprise when this Bill was selected, out of the many relics in the arsenal of hon. Members opposite, to be brought up on a private Members' day. Twice they brought it in when they had a much larger representation in this House than they have now—a larger representation, I hope, than they will ever have again—and when it also had the support of a large party below the Gangway. I hope the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Acland), who, I believe, is going to give his views later, will remember that he has a heavy responsibility to-day, as it was his then leader's speech which secured the Second Reading of the Bill in 1931, and which contained the sentiment which I commend to him to-day. Lord Samuel, as he now is, was asked:Is the right hon. Gentleman saying what the Bill contains or what he thinks it contains?He replied:I am saying what the Bill really means but does not express.''—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th March, 1931; col. 798, Vol. 250.]I hope the hon. Member for Barnstaple will to-day re-enlighten us on what the Bill really means. I would like to come to some of the things which it expresses. Nearly all of them have been dealt with thoroughly by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Donner), but I should like to reiterate the objection which he took to the somewhat arbitrary procedure permitted by the Bill. The fact that the President of the Board of Trade, through his accomplices, is 1273 allowed to override Parliament at any time is objectionable to hon. Members on this side of the House, though it is not surprising in a Bill of this nature. The fact that the accomplices of the President of the Board of Trade are to be selected on account of their ignorance is, again, although objectionable to hon. Members on this side, not surprising in a Bill of this nature. The same system has been advocated in much of the literature of the party opposite. The text book with which they endeavour from time to time to beguile the electorate, I remember once laid down the Socialist party's idea of how control should be taken of the banking system of this country, and they advocated some board very similar to this, the members of which were to be selected, not because they knew anything about banking, but because they were good Socialists. I see that now they seem to have dropped even that qualification.
§ Mr. Montague
Will the hon. Gentleman say how much he knows about the administration of the Post Office?
§ Mr. Wise
I do not, in fact, run the Post Office. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that he has just committed a familiar fallacy of the Socialist party opposite, which is, the complete misinterpretation of the functions of the House of Commons. The country is administered by the Executive, and this House is traditionally and constitutionally here as a brake on the Executive, and as a protection of the public purse and the public liberty. To suggest that we are a Nazi organisation charged with the administration of the country is a fantastic misrepresentation of the functions of Parliament. I regard the interruption of the hon. Gentleman as irrelevant, but, on the other hand, very revealing of the mentality of hon. Members opposite.
There is one other point I would like to make as to the arbitrary powers of this Bill. It is the question of precise definition which was mentioned by my hon. Friend. It is almost impossible precisely to define any commodity if you want to do it for price fixing. I thought 1274 of an easy example the other day when I first read this Bill. I thought to myself, could I possibly, if I sat down to do it, define soap? It sounds easy enough, but I challenge the hon. Gentleman who moved the Motion for the Second Reading of the Bill to produce an adequate description of soap ranging from Monkey Brand, through pumice stone, down to the ordinary household soap. All these things are possibly capable of some sort of general definition, but I should hesitate to try and give one.
§ Mr. Woods
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in defining the qualities of soap it is essential that those who purchase soap should get value for their money? There is a good deal of swindling done in regard to the sale of soap. If he wishes to know how easily that takes place he should buy two bars of soap and put them by and see how much he has left at the end of three weeks. We want a council of honest people who are not prejudiced in order to get the necessary advice on these subjects.
§ Mr. Alexander
Had not the hon. Member better think again? I would like to know what he feels about it. Since 1931 there has been a tariff board and you have to define specifically all the different commodities in the tariff schedule. They have more experience now than was the case in 1931.
§ Mr. Wise
There, again, I cannot see the analogy between the Tariff Board and the unfortunate shopkeeper who has to sell the stuff. The Tariff Board deals with imports in large quantities of declared value before they come in, and it is possible in that case to have a far wider range of definitions than would be practicable in the ordinary grocer's shop. The Tariff Board has a large staff to help it in definitions, and the position of the 1275 grocer, with his list of soaps, his definitions of various qualities of tea and his analyses of the contents of each different brand of canned fruit, which he would have to have, is, I submit, in a very different position. Indeed, in this Bill hon. Members opposite have provided for this case. They have provided that no falsity of definition and no lack of precision of definition shall prevent a shopkeeper from going to gaol for selling a wrong article. They have exempted themselves from the necessity of precision of definition and have merely threatened to imprison him if he fails to adhere to a precision which they cannot themselves produce.
There is another of these rather arbitrary powers which strikes me as going a little too far. They say, in the famous Second Schedule, where it lays down a most surprising new idea in the administration of the law of this country, that an offender under an Order made by the President of the Board of Trade could be prosecuted whether that Order was valid or not, or whether it was subsequently rejected by Parliament. It has no effect whatever on proceedings which are taken against him. It might be convenient for the President of the Board of Trade at the time, but I think it is a negation of the liberties which this House exists to protect.
§ Mr. R. Acland
What about the smuggling of an article which had just been taxed by an Order imposed by the Treasury?
§ Mr. Wise
The hon. Member is rather trying to cloud the issue. It could not be smuggled under an Order imposed by the Treasury, because the Order would have already lain on the Table of this House and been approved by this House before proceedings were taken. I really think that I am right there, but I will always submit to correction. I believe that my hon. Friend is a lawyer, and I am not, but that is my reading of the present Import Duties Acts. The general principles which are behind this Bill are, I think, possibly well intentioned but are almost impossible to enforce. The hon. Member who moved the Bill endeavoured to create a favourable impression for his Motion by appealing to those general sentiments which are so easy to touch, but which sometimes are prone to lead one to hasty 1276 and unconsidered action. He referred to the unfortunate lot of the very large section of people of this country whose wages or relief are very low. I presume that in that case he was endeavouring to give the idea that this Bill would start by reducing the price level which exists to-day. This Consumers' Council would have the effect of reducing prices, otherwise his appeal to our emotions was unjustified. He was gaining sympathy for the Bill by announcing a possible result which could not be obtained.
The Seconder of the Motion did not say anything of the sort. His theory was that this Council would prevent any rise in the present prices and would produce some form of stability. It is very difficult to see which of them is really the one to which we are to attach credance to-day. If this Council is to produce a fall in the present level of prices, and at the same time do another thing which I see is laid down in the Bill, and a very important principle enshrined in Clause 5 is to check any conditions which are restricting the free play of competition—I think that hon. Members will find that they are leading themselves up a very dangerous path indeed. The free play of competition is, in theory, an excellent thing. On this side of the House we are delighted and proud always to say that we have never been theorists. The test whether the plan is a good one or not is whether it will work under this free play of competition, which has suddenly become so dear to hon. Members opposite. I say "suddenly." Anyhow, I do not know why they have produced this proposal, because it is not normally in accordance with their theories. In the Bill the free play of competition is to be encouraged at all costs. One of the things which restricts the free play of competition is the question of minimum wages. I am not saying that minimum wages are wrong; on the contrary, I think they are entirely right, but there can be no question that they do restrict the free play of competition.
This Council is to be charged with the examination of the costs of production and distribution, profit and everything else. Is it to report that wages should be reduced in the producing industries, in order that the consumer can pay less for his goods, or be able more efficiently to compete with the competition from outside? We must remember, as my hon. 1277 Friend the Member for Basingstoke said, that we have not in this country the control of the producer, because so many of the articles with which hon. Members opposite are concerned in this Bill are produced in other countries. We have assumed a certain measure of control by the adoption of the system of tariffs, but that is a system which hon. Members opposite have promised that they are going to repeal if and when they get into office.
§ Mr. Wise
The assurance of the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. E. Smith) did not come from his front bench, and he has not yet been translated there by the creation of another vacancy. I do not believe that this free play of competition is a sound basis on which to arrive at a judgment on the regulation of prices. I am not against the regulation of prices, as such. Indeed, no supporter of the present Government could be an opponent of that, because a very large number of the actions we have taken have been directed towards price control and price maintenance. My suggestion is that control of prices by producers—who have many checks upon their activities; they have the check of foreign imports, the check of the pressure in this House and the check of the Ministry itself—would be a form of price regulation much more balanced and cautious than the price regulation suggested in the Bill, which is to be carried out by an irresponsible committee, qualifications for which are very varied and which include two statutory women.
§ Mr. Wise
I am not a biologist; therefore I cannot say. What I am suggesting is that in drafting the Bill the hon. Member opposite was so profoundly doubtful of the abilities of women, that he deems it necessary to provide for their inclusion, believing that if it were left to the free choice of the President of the Board of Trade, he would not select women. That is the objection that has always been taken to these specific references to women, in legislation, notably by my hon. Friend the senior Member for Oxford University (Mr. A. Herbert), who describes them as statutory women. I am glad that he is now present and I hope he will raise a violent protest against this Bill, which I may inform him provides for the inclusion of two statutory women instead of one.
The basic objection to the Bill is that it endeavours to set up a false standard of values. The party opposite have moved from one standard of values to another. Many years ago they accepted the ordinary Marxian definition that a thing was worth what it cost to make [An HON. MEMBER: "That is wrong"] It is, at any rate, a generalisation, and it is near enough. The fact is that the party opposite have discarded that principle and are now fixing prices not on the cost of production, not on popular demand but on something which they think a Committee will decide, when it sits down to consider the matter—a committee of seven people. They would have to judge a number of commodities running to between 18,000 or 19,000. They would have to select an arbitrary price for each particular commodity. I do not believe that that is a possibility, and I do not believe it would be desirable, even if it were possible. I am afraid the Bill is not merely unworkable, but philosophically unsound and political nonsense. Therefore, I hope the House will reject it.
§ 12.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Acland
I welcome the Bill because we have so many Bills designed to keep prices up. It is, therefore, a welcome change to have a Bill which aims at keeping prices down. This Bill raises a fundamental issue between hon. Members on this side of the House and on the other side, although the fundamental issue is disguised and covered over constantly by a smoke screen. We have in this Bill a very clear recognition from the party above the Gangway that, so far as the great bulk of the distributive trade and a great deal of the productive trade are concerned, we are not going to get Socialism in any near time. They have given up advocating Socialism except for one or two major industries, but that does not stop the party opposite from pretending that the party above the Gangway on this side would nationalise everything, even down to the garden roller with which a man happens to roll his land. They make these suggestions in order to frighten the more timid electors into voting for the National Government.
§ Mr. Acland
I admit that the terror about the garden roller being snatched away may perhaps be justified by some of the earlier literature, but not by their current literature. It is a recognition that there is not going to be Socialism or nationalisation coming along at any reasonably foreseeable future date. On the other hand, I think we get the questions we have to decide out of perspective if we make the opposite assumption—particularly noticeable in the speech of the hon. Member who proposed the Amendment—that private enterprise is still the universally existing system in our present economy, or, rather, that free competition is still a universally persisting state of affairs in our economic structure.
§ Mr. Acland
No, but the whole of the hon. Member's argument rested on the assumption that it was universal. The argument he used was that free competition is the thing which brings down prices to what they ought to be. That has long been the doctrine of my party, but we do not shut our eyes to the fact 1280 that steadily, day by day, free competition over large areas of our economic life is ceasing to be the normal state of affairs. You have complete ownership in one single concern, as in the case of the Imperial Tobacco Company and Imperial Chemicals, and federations with great powers exercising sanctions over their members, like the British Iron and Steel Federation. It is only fair to them to say that they have chosen as chairman a man who knows nothing about the industry. They chose him for his general qualities of impartiality; they seemed to think this was more important than a precise knowledge of the technical details of the industry with which he was going to deal.
That, indeed, counters the suggestion that this Bill is unsound because it puts powers into the hands of people who have no technical knowledge. The agreements in these great concerns are so tight that sanctions can be enforced by law and below that you have spread over production and trade tacit consent to the suggestion that in certain respects competition shall not be as ruthless as Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill and others. That is a state of affairs which this House should take into account. More and more we are getting away from private enterprise and drifting into a state of monopoly or semi-monopoly control; and it is exclusively with that that this Bill deals. One of the things upon which the Council has to be satisfied is that there exist conditions which restrict free competition. As long as there is competition in any branch of distribution or production no trader need fear the proposals of the Bill.
§ Mr. Acland
I presume they will be able to ask for information to find out whether there is competition or not. As I read the Bill, the power of going to the Board of Trade and asking them to make a recommendation exists only where there is not free competition, but where there is free competition I maintain that that will be relied upon to the job. Where there is no free competition—and this is what I really want to put to hon. Members opposite—is it their contention that producers and makers shall be able, shall be encouraged, admittedly by the exercise 1281 of skill and cleverness, to get themselves into a position in which they are more or less in part or in whole removed from the ordinary processes of competition, and then having achieved a monopoly or a semi-monopoly position, shall be allowed to lie back and reap the reward of their cleverness? Is that the sort of cleverness we want to encourage? If a man puts up a factory and makes it as efficient as it can conceivably be made, let him make his profits, and good luck to him. That is the sort of skill we want to encourage. But do we want to encourage the sort of skill where producers and traders seek to create conditions in which they will have a monopoly or a semi-monopoly position so that they may just lie back and take their profits? I have a fear that that is the sort of state of affairs which hon. Members opposite may not be anxious to create but which they are quite willing to see should it happen to come into existence.
The hon. Member for Smethwick (Mr. Wise) said something about false standards of values. What sort of standards of values are created when firms who, under the strict laws of Adam Smith would be competing with each other, are able to meet each other once a year round a table and decide that the prices which would be achieved under free competition shall not be the prices at which they will offer their goods to the public in the forthcoming 12 months? Is that a false or a true standard of values? Far from the Bill creating false standards of values, I say that it aims at attacking false standards of value when they have been created by people. That is where you get the fundamental division between hon. Members on this side and hon. Members opposite. This monopoly control is growing steadily before our eyes, and the Government are constantly pushing it along. There are constantly growing up behind the scenes shadowy figures who we do not know, who are getting more and more the economic power of this country into their hands, and who are outside the control of this House. Hon. Members opposite have talked about the Bill giving power without responsibility. What have the great financial magnates of this country in their hands to-day if it is not this very power without responsibility?
The real issue to-day is between those who want to have the power in the hands 1282 of shadowy people, whom we do not know, a self-appointed oligarchy, which is always outside the sphere of influence of the ordinary people, and who will be able with the power they have through a monopoly to dictate what shall be the conditions of life of the common people, and the common people who have a right to control the sort of life they live. This Bill is one small corner of that battleground between the people who now have power versus the immense number of small men who are seeking to establish their rights. Of course, hon. Members on this side support the Bill, and therefore, it follows inevitably that hon. Members on the other side oppose it; but in opposing it, they withhold their real reason for doing so. Their real reason is that the Bill would, in a small way, take back a little of the power which is now rushing into the hands of what I would call their sort of people.
Hon. Members opposite give all sorts of curious reasons for opposing the Bill. One reason was that, by a circuitous course, the Bill would result in interfering with minimum wages because it would re-establish free competition. It is important to realise that that is not what the Bill would do. There are some hon. Members—I admit there are some of them in my party—who, seeing this rapid advance towards conditions of monopoly, wish to call a halt and to go back to free competition. They would wish to make Imperial Chemical Industries compete with itself somehow. I believe that is the wrong way. The Bill does not try to re-introduce free competition, but on the contrary, says that where a monopoly or a semi-monopoly has been established, the public has a right to know that it is not being exploited. I would mention in passing that this reform, like all other sensible reforms, was dealt with in the book "Britain's Industrial Future," which was published in 1927 by the Liberal Party; no doubt the provisions contained in it will ultimately, at some very distant date, be enacted as the law of the land, and then people will regret that they were not enacted sooner.
Another strange argument put forward was that all our traders would quit. That seems to me to be rather a ridiculous argument, because wherever there was free competition and the prices charged were reasonable, traders would have nothing to fear from the Bill. It is also 1283 suggested that the Bill would confer an arbitrary power to fix prices and impose fines and penalties without the consent of the House. I may be wrong, but I think an Order of the Treasury can impose a tariff which is collected from the date on which the Order is made. It might happen that an Order coming from the Treasury on, say, 25th July would come into force forthwith and it would not be until October or November, when the House reassembled, that the Order would be confirmed or otherwise; and during the whole of that time, the Order would be in force and anybody who brought in goods under it would have to pay the tariff. I am not a legal expert, but I should think that if during those months somebody was caught smuggling the goods to which the Order applied, he would have to pay the proper penalties, even though the House of Commons might subsequently refuse to confirm the Order. Therefore, I do not think there is anything unique or revolutionary to the Schedule to the Bill.
§ Mr. Donner
That is not a strictly accurate parallel, because under Schedule 2, after Parliament has approved the order and approved the fixing of the price, it is possible for the President of the Board of Trade to issue an emergency Order and to alter the decision of Parliament, and that emergency Order need not be placed again before Parliament for approval.
§ Mr. Acland
I do not wish to go into a great argument about this, but if the hon. Member is right in what he says, it is a monstrous provision, and would have to be altered in Committee. Having examined one or two of the reasons for which hon. Members opposite oppose the Bill, I come now to the extraordinary fact that in their speeches they condemned from first to last all the powers suggested in the Bill and said that those powers are monstrous, unreasonable and wicked and would destroy trade and do incalculable damage, whereas in the words of the Amendment they claim that those powers already exist and were introduced by this Government. The Amendment states:That this House recognises the value to the consumers of the enquiries made from time to time by the Food Council with the co-operation of traders, takes note that powers to obtain information in regard to the commodities described in the Bill are already 1284 available should they be necessary under the Tribunals of Enquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921.All the things which hon. Members opposite have been condemning in their speeches they tell us, in their Amendment, exist already, and they welcome that as being a good thing.
§ Mr. Acland
Certainly, I read the Amendment as meaning that we have sufficient of these powers, and therefore, I came to the House with a little information to suggest the contrary. There is already a Food Council, but when in 1937 there was imposed a subsidy of 5s. on wheat and in seven weeks the wholesale price offered by the market went down to 4s. 9d. a cwt., and the retail price went up by, I think, a halfpenny, what did the Food Council do? Do hon. Members who oppose the Bill seriously maintain that those circumstances were not such as to require investigation and action? I maintain that they were. The public was entitled to know if there was something wrong, and for the sake of the traders, if there was not anything wrong. Such circumstances give rise to suspicion, and therefore, there ought to be action if the suspicion is justified, and if the suspicion is not justified, then an explanation is necessary. Let us, for a moment, consider the statements of the Food Council, which hon. Members opposite consider to be such an adequate body. The Food Council said, for instance,We consider that, having regard to the wide variation in the character and cost in the distribution of milk, the retail margins of the prices described have not been fixed at a sufficiently low level.That was a recommendation by the Food Council, but was anything done about it? No, nothing was done. The Bill proposes that the Council should have power to see that something is done. Then, I give the following quotation:The Consumers' Committee, in a report dated 6th June, 1936, commented adversely on the fact that while the Scottish Milk Marketing Board could authorise a lower retail price, they had no power to compel the distributors to observe it.In other words, the very Food Council which hon. Members opposite hold up to us as being adequate, tell us that what 1285 they require is precisely what the Bill proposes, because neither they nor anybody else have the powers which the Bill seeks to give them.
Let me take another case. The Consumers Committee of Scotland reported on complaints made by the City of Glasgow in regard to increased prices payable for milk supplied to institutions administered by them. The committee expressed the view that there was a case for exceptional treatment of these institutions. If we had had this Measure, that exceptional treatment, recommended by the Committee of Investigation, could have been afforded and those institutions would have been getting their milk at reduced rates even since. But because there was not this machinery, what happened? The then Secretary of State for Scotland—this was in 1936—decided that:As the question of granting preferential treatment to local authority voluntary hospitals was not peculiar to Scotland but formed part of a wider question on the consideration of which any general policy of fixing differential prices should be based, the matter was one to be kept in view in the formulation of a long-term policy for the milk industry.That, I repeat, was in 1936 when the Government said they were formulating a long-term policy for the milk industry. Three years have passed and the Government are still formulating a long-term policy for the milk industry. Meanwhile, because we have not the sort of powers and the sort of machinery to operate them which the Bill seeks to establish, during those three years the public institutions of Glasgow have been purchasing milk at higher prices than the Committee of Investigation for Scotland thought proper.
I have two small points to make on the Bill itself. One is with regard to the question of women members on the proposed Council. I should have thought that a proper provision would have been one to the effect that of the membership two should be women and at least two should be men. Under the Bill as it is drafted, there seems to be nothing in the world to prevent the President of the Board of Trade appointing seven women and that seems very unfair to the weaker sex. I would also call attention to the provision that the Council are to concern themselves with certain articles andany other article of common use.1286 I wonder what that means? I hope it is not unduly restrictive. I hope it means any article which it is common to find certain people using, and does not mean only those articles actually purchased by the housewife in the shops every day. There is one suggestion which I should like to see taken up with the new Minister of Agriculture. It is that the procedure suggested by the Bill might usefully be applied to cake, offals and other things which farmers buy from merchants, from millers, from cake crushers and others who, in many cases, are linked up in a pretty close monopoly organisation. I hope it will be possible to deal with those people in the Bill. If the Minister of Agriculture proposes to guarantee to the farmers that they shall receive the cost of production of their produce, and if he is going to look into the costs of production to see what they are, I hope he will also look into the cost of production of the farmers' raw materials, and see that the prices charged to the farmer are not greater than would cover the true cost of production and give a margin of profit. This Bill might be a useful instrument for those purposes in the hands of the Minister. For all those reasons, I heartily support the Second Reading.
§ 1.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Bull
Unlike the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Acland) I do not welcome this Bill. I cannot even go so far as to agree with him in his statement or in the inference which might reasonably be drawn from his statement, that the Socialist party mean no harm. I should have thought that his party would have been the first to realise what dangerous people the Socialists really are, and I am only afraid that after the next General Election—and I think it will be a pity—the Liberal Bench on the opposite side of the House will be even less crowded than it is to-day. [HON. MEMBERS: "Will you be here?"] I did not say that I would be here, but I live in hope. I think this Bill will have two definitely bad effects. It will force the disclosure of trade secrets, and it will impose secretarial and other expenses on small shopkeepers, who often find it difficult enough, in any event, to make both ends meet. I note that the Co-operative Society has come right out into the open in support of the Bill. Perhaps they can bear the burden more 1287 easily than the small shopkeepers, but I am certain they would not wish to commit any injustice against the small shopkeepers by placing an increased burden on them, and, therefore, I hope that when they have gained a clearer understanding of the effects of the Bill by listening to the speeches from this side of the House, they will not vote for it at all. I agree with the view which has already been expressed that competition is the best way in the interests of the consumer to keep prices down. Under this Bill there would be obviously more interference by the State with the individual, and it would involve the appointment of more officials.
The hon. Member who moved the Second Reading referred to the increase in the size of our bureaucracy in recent years. However that may be, I still say that there is no reason why we should increase it still further in this way. The Bill would certainly impose more taxation on the general public for the maintenance of these officials. The hon. Member also said that the majority of the population were very much concerned about this matter of prices, but I suggest that if they had to meet the increased taxation which would be involved in these proposals, they would be even more concerned. It does not appear to me from my own observations after visiting Russia or from what we read of that country and of the liquidation of officials there that to have everything definitely under the control of the State would necessarily lead to increased efficiency, and this Bill would certainly be a step further in the direction of State control. I do not think we want to reach the position, which has been reached in Russia, of having a large body of officials running the country and having cars and chauffeurs and the mass of the people toiling to support them. This is not a war-time Measure. The hon. Member who moved the Second Reading said that in time of war such a Measure would be vitally necessary. Something of the sort might well be necessary in war time, but it would have to be a carefully considered and well prepared Measure and not a Bill of this kind. With regard to these war measures, thanks to the efforts of the Prime Minister we do not need this sort of Bill. In Clause 1, Sub-section (3) the Bill states:The Board of Trade may … appoint such number of persons as they think fit to 1288 act as additional members of the Council for the purposes of any investigation. …That means that the numbers are unlimited and also that the scope of the inquiry is unlimited. In Sub-section (4) it says, with regard to the dismissal of a member of the council:… the Board shall declare his office to be vacant.That seems to be a somewhat summary method of dismissal, and I had always thought and believed that the Labour party were definitely against summary dismissals. I wonder whether these people will have a trade union to protect them; I think they will need one. In Clause 2, Sub-section (1) there is this provision:It shall be the duty of the Council … to investigate all such questions relating to the production, distribution, supply or price of any commodity.It will take a great number of officials to do that. Then later in the same Subsection it says:… being a commodity with which they are charged … to concern themselves, as may appear to them either from complaints made to them …They are inviting complaints. Think of the number of letters which they will have to read. We Members of Parliament know how many complaints we get uninvited, but here complaints are invited. Think of what a body of persons it will take to deal with them. With regard to the reports to be made to the Board of Trade, it will mean an increase in the officials of the Board of Trade to read them. In Sub-section (2) of Clause 2 it speaks of:The commodities with which the Council are charged to concern themselves …and these include:articles of food … articles of wearing apparel, clothing materials, fuels …That is very interesting and shows the great number of duties which the Council will have to carry out, and I am wondering whether any hon. Members opposite who have concerned themselves with the introduction of this Bill can give us even a rough idea, within a thousand, say, of the number of new officials it will take to pry into all these shops all over the country. How many shops are involved, how many officials, and on how many shops is it estimated that one official could call? If they have looked into these matters, as I am sure they have, I hope they 1289 will enlighten the House as soon as possible on these points. Sub-section (4) of Clause 2 says:… make to the Board a general report of their proceedings during that year, and the Board shall cause every such annual report of the Council to be laid forthwith before … Parliament.I would like to remind hon. Members opposite that this is something dealing with home affairs and that if we get too many reports that will have to be studied, they will have still less time than at present, which does not seem to be enough to suit them, in which to discuss Czecho-Slovakia and Spain.
§ Mr. R. C. Morrison
Is the hon. Member aware that local authorities have their officials now to visit shops?
§ Mr Bull
I am, but I am only asking, if we are to get all this additional information, what increase in the number of officials this Bill will necessitate. My point is, Why add to them? Sub-section (1, iii) of Clause 3, which seems to be setting up a new Star Chamber, is hardly in accordance with the English tradition of liberty—all this examination on oath, access to books and documents, and so on. If it is proved to be necessary, well and good, but I do not think the promoters of the Bill have yet made out a sufficient case. In Clause 7, Sub-section (1), it says:There shall be paid by the Board of Trade such remuneration, if any,. …Why is it necessary to hide behind the words "if any"? Why not come out into the open and say whether they want to pay these people or not? The people who will do these things will want to know whether or not they are to be paid.
§ Mr. Bull
I suppose this is only the transitional stage, and that when we get proper Socialism it will not be necessary, because no one will have any money then. Sub-section (2) of Clause 7 states:Any expenses incurred by the Board of Trade under this Act shall be defrayed out of moneys provided by Parliament.1290 We have to vote the money if hon. Members opposite can persuade us to do so, and I do not think they can, but it is the taxpayer who in the last resort must find the money, and I should have thought we had enough to do with all the money we can get just now without running into this type of expenditure. In paragraph 4 of the First Schedule it states:The proceedings of the Council shall not be invalidated by any vacancy among the members or by any defect in the appointment of any member.If we can have vacancies which do not necessarily have to be filled, I fear the Council may become somewhat dictatorial, especially if you read that in conjunction with the words "as soon as may be" in Sub-section (5) of Clause 1 dealing with the filling of vacancies. In the Second Schedule, in paragraph 3, it says:If in any case it appears to the Board that on the ground of urgency it is expedient so to do, they may make an order as an emergency order without complying with the foregoing provisions of this Schedule,This has to do with making representations and so on, but this paragraph 3 allows no time for that, and I think it is a very serious thing that a man should not be given time in which to make representations. In the Bill as a whole I can find nothing that will possibly stimulate trade, though it will do something for employment if extra officials are what we want, but as to stimulating real trade and employment, I can find nothing that attempts to do that, except that in paragraph 4 of the Second Schedule it states:So soon as the Board have made any order, they shall cause the order to be published in the London and Edinburgh Gazettes.All that the Bill will actually do, on account of the nervousness of the shopkeepers, is to put up the sale of the London and Edinburgh "Gazettes," because those traders will have anxiously to look to see what is going to happen to them from day to day. That is the only thing it will do in regard to stimulating trade.
§ Mr. Petherick
Is there not a grave danger, if the sales of the London and Edinburgh "Gazettes" are put up, it will defeat its own object, because the Council will then be obliged to look carefully at the price of paper?
§ 1.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Chater
The hon. Member for Enfield (Mr. Bull) has been somewhat entertaining, if not instructive. He made some observations about the Co-operative movement, but obviously he is not well acquainted with it, or he would realise that it would come out in support of the Bill, because it regards itself in a special sense as the guardian of the interests of consumers. He went on to trot out nearly all the stabilised arguments which have been used by supporters of capitalist enterprise against the Cooperative movement ever since there has been one, and, in particular, he emphasised the argument which tries to convey to the general public that his party has a special affection and concern for the protection of the small shopkeeper. I wonder whether he has ever heard of the multiple shops. I have never heard that free competition was a gospel especially loved by the big multiple concerns. On the contrary, the whole trend of modern capitalist industry is not towards free competition, but to the establishment of water-tight monopolies.
I was rather amused that the hon. Gentleman should be concerned about the number of officials who might be created under this Bill. I wonder whether that was due to a subconsciousness on his part that the abuses which the Bill seeks to redress are so numerous in the capitalist system which he loves that those officials would be a necessity. Obviously he is already aware of the abuses and of profiteering in no small degree; otherwise, why should he assume that this vast horde of officials would be necessary?
§ Notice taken that 40 members were not present: House counted, and 40 members being present—
§ Mr. Chater
The hon. Member also said that Co-operative societies would be able to stand the expense of these officials better than the small shopkeepers. If he understood Co-operative trading business he would realise that there would be no expense for Co-operative concerns since they do not indulge in profiteering, and, in essence, do not make profits at 1292 all, so that they would not have any share in the extra expense for officials. He said that the Bill would not do anything to stop profiteering in war time, and that the machinery was already in existence for that purpose. Is there any hon. Member who believes for a moment that the Consumers' Council machinery which is already in existence has been in the slightest degree effective? It has never had any effect on reducing profiteering, and I assume that what will probably be the united opposition of the party opposite to this Bill is due to the fact that they have a great fear that it will actually set up more effective machinery than that which already exists and may really stop profiteering.
I have no doubt that in the minds of hon. Members opposite there remains a lively recollection of the huge profits which were made, and made so speedily, during the last War, and there is probably still a slight moisture about the mouths of some hon. Members when they contemplate the possibility of repeating the operation. One might with some justification utter something in the nature of a warning to hon. Members opposite. If we should by misfortunte be plunged into another great war, and if an orgy of profiteering broke out again and there was not in existence some machinery for stopping it, some machinery which had already become efficient, we might predict with some degree of certainty that there would be a greater outcry and more organised physical opposition to that profiteering than was experienced during the last War. I would not hesitate to go so far as to say that it would be a moral obligation on the part of the Cooperative movement and of the whole Labour party to organise that opposition and demand that effective steps should be taken to prevent profiteering.
Two or three years after the close of the Great War an article appeared in a paper that did not support my party but supported the party opposite—the "Pall Mall Gazette "—in which the financial editor made the calculation that no less than £4,000,000,000 of the National Debt was due to profiteering. If that be so, surely hon. Members opposite will recognise that if we are to bear the burden of the debts which would be created by another war, it is eminently desirable that they should not be increased by some- 1293 thing like 50 per cent, through sheer profiteering. From that point of view I am supporting the Bill, and while I do not expect hon. Members belonging to the party opposite to support it, I am convinced that when its objective is made known to the working classes they will take due note of the party which opposed it.
§ 1.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Petherick
I should say at the outset that this is one of the worst Bills which it has ever been my misfortune to read, and I propose to show why I think so. Most of the speech of the hon. Member for North-East Bethnal Green (Mr. Chater) was devoted to what might happen in time of war, and he feared, as I should think we should all fear, the possibility of profiteering such as took place during the 1914–18 War. Unless something were done should war break out to prevent profiteering it would be inevitable, not necessarily because there are a large number of evil-minded people who would want to make profits, but because there would inevitably be some form of inflation. We all remember the huge profits, and the very high wages, which were made during the last war, and should a war come again it may well be necessary to fix the prices of some essential articles of food the imports of which will be most rigidly controlled by the Government of the day; but in a time of war the country is obliged to submit to a number of extremely uncomfortable restrictions which are very bad for its ordinary economic prosperity.
I had hoped that this Bill had died about 10 years ago, but the grisly corpse is now presented to Parliament again, and we are invited to pass it practically in its old form. I must say it is very well preserved; probably it has been kept in the cellars of Transport House in some mummified form, because it seems almost identical with the one presented some 10 years ago. On a public platform it is very easy to make out a magnificent case for this Bill. Hon. Members will no doubt tell their constituents that the wicked Tory Party defeated this admirable Measure which was designed to keep down the price of the peoples' food, to prevent profiteering at the expense of the poorest of the poor, and deliver specious arguments about it, but the people will not be told—unless we tell them—of the other side of the picture.
1294 The range of commodities affected by this Bill will probably embrace about half of those which are in ordinary use in this country—it may be more than half—and I understand that in the main control will be exercised over retail prices rather than over wholesale prices. Wholesale prices move with extraordinary rapidity and are subject to very great fluctuations, and it frequently alarms and annoys the public when they see the wholesale price of a certain commodity dropping heavily to find that the retail price does not immediately follow suit. What they forget is that in the retail price there are a large number of factors which do not enter into the wholesale price—the transport charges from the time the goods are sold wholesale to the time they reach the consumer, and other factors in the process of distribution, and, of course, there are wages all along the line. The main cause of the comparative rigidity of retail prices, or, rather of their unreadiness to respond to movements in wholesale prices, is found primarily in these charges, of which wages are the most important.
We have had to-day attacks on various forms of producers' boards set up, in the main, by the Government. I am not one who is wholly in favour of this new economic system, which, incidentally, was introduced by hon. Members opposite in their Agricultural Marketing Act, 1930. I never thought it was a particularly agreeable child to be obliged to bring up, but hon. Members opposite cannot abuse this Government or us on this side for taking over their child, acting as godfather to it, educating it and making it slightly less vicious than it was when it started its life. It has been pointed out on many occasions that if you fix retail or, indeed, wholesale prices you must fix them, practically speaking, on the basis of the costs of those who are sometimes termed the least-efficient producers but whom I would term the B2 or B3 producers, because if prices are fixed on the basis of the most-efficient production that will throw out of business practically everybody else in the country engaged in the production or sale of the commodities concerned. It may be asked why ordinary competition, under the system prevailing in this country, does not keep down prices. An hon. Member, I think the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Adams), asked a question the other day 1295 about cement prices, objecting apparently to a "ring" being formed to keep up cement prices and saying there was practically a monopoly. Many hon. Members on this side object to a monopoly, but the corollary would appear to be to see that free competition is allowed as far as possible.
§ Mr. Chater
Does the hon. Member mean by that last remark that he would be in favour of abolishing monopolies?
§ Mr. Petherick
If it is possible to do so, because I do not like monopolies, but we shall not abolish them by the operations of this Bill, as I shall attempt to show. One hon. Member referred to cut-price stores—I suppose he means Wool-worths—and seemed to indicate that the system which he would advocate, that is to say, fixed prices, was largely in force in the country at the present time. I do not see how the Bill will affect that. Is it intended that the powers under the Bill should be used in relation to goods supplied to Woolworths and the cut-price stores? If not, a large field is left out of the examination.
§ Mr. Alexander
As the hon. Member referred to is not in the House at the moment, perhaps I may explain that what he was speaking of is the growth of cut-price shops—not of chain stores such as Messrs. Woolworth's—which obtain surreptitiously supplies of goods which ordinary traders have to sell at fixed prices and then undercut those prices.
§ Mr. Petherick
If you act surreptitiously to obtain goods at the cheapest price possible, or, indeed, if you obtain them openly, then you are likely to make a very good profit if you are lucky, or, if you are not very clever, are liable to "go broke," but I do not see how this Bill will in the least effect that situation. The hon. Member who introduced the Bill said that it would prove to be some protection against bureaucrats. To say that a Bill which sets up a council to inquire into the prices of many hundreds, if not thousands, of articles all over the country will give protection against bureaucrats is something which I cannot begin to understand. What he proposes to do is to create more bureaucrats, perhaps on the principle that the only 1296 way of dealing with the difficulty of a growing bureaucracy is to set a bureaucrat to catch a bureaucrat. Under the Bill price examinations would go on the whole time. It would be interesting to know at what moment, for what reason and where such examinations would take place. Would a number of people go to the council and complain of the prices of certain articles being too high, or would the council have a sort of roving commission to keep an eye on the prices of all the commodities of the country the whole time? By what kind of method would the council proceed?
Then comes the question of quality. Few people not engaged in trade realise the immense difficulties associated with questions of quality. For example, a tin of sardines is just a tin of sardines to most of us, unless we make an occasional exception and ask for "Skippers" or something of that sort which is well known. Nevertheless, there are many different qualities and grades of sardines. How would the council be able to settle questions of that sort?
§ Mr. Petherick
Yes, but would they treat sardines as one commodity regardless of price and pack? How would they set about their task? The timber industry, which I understand very well, would come within the scope of the Bill. Although I am no longer engaged in that trade, and therefore have no axe to grind, I should be interested to know how the proposed Council would take action in regard to timber. Everybody knows that timber is used not only in house building but in an immense variety of other ways all over the country. Anybody with the slightest knowledge of timber will be aware of its almost endless varieties and differences in specification. The ordinary timber importer who orders a cargo of timber will have 40 or 50 specifications and sizes, and three, four or more different qualities. He will know that Finnish timber is different from Swedish, Swedish from Russian, Russian from Lithuanian and Polish, and Polish from Canadian and American. Any one who started to fix prices for the timber trade would be in a lunatic asylum in a very short time. Owing to the fact that production and consumption vary in different countries all the time because of climatic conditions 1297 which constantly change, prices jump up and down continually, even in a normal year.
Suppose you fixed a price to-day for one simple range of timber; you would find, to-morrow possibly, and certainly within a fortnight's time, that that price was out-of-date. You would find that timber merchants were either making a considerable profit upon the fixed price, or losing money heavily, owing to the fluctuations which had taken place. One might multiply this illustration by the many hundreds of articles which would have to be supervised. I am sure that we should get into terrible difficulties if we allowed a Bill such as this to pass. The Bill is another example of the extraordinary passion for interference with the trade of the country which animates many people. The world is divided roughly into two classes of persons, those who wish to call their souls their own, and those who wish to call other people's souls their own. The Bill is, obviously, framed by persons of the latter order.
I am sorry if I have delayed the House by my disquisition on the merits of the Bill. I will now endeavour to comment upon it in detail. Clause 1 (1) is very interesting. I read that the unfortunate council which would be responsible for carrying out the duties prescribed would consist of only seven persons. There would be only seven persons to keep a strict eye upon and to fix the prices of all the ranges of commodities in general use in this country. Under a subsequent clause the Board of Trade would have power to remove from office any person who was regarded as unfitted to continue. I notice that the clause ordinarily found in schedules about removing persons of unsound mind is absent from the Bill. Perhaps the Board of Trade would find a number of people in that condition after the Council of seven estimable persons had been in operation for a short time.
What sort of people are to be appointed to the Council? Business men? Is it proposed to adopt the earlier practice of the present Government in relation to producers' Bills, and to appoint people particularly concerned in the trade, or their later practice of appointing some of those excellent, independent persons—to my mind a much better practice—such as lawyers, accountants and university professors, with no knowledge at all of the trade? I notice that there are to 1298 be two statutory women on the Council. The hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Acland) thinks that it would be advisable to supplement the number by a couple of statutory men as well, but that would be something of which I would not approve.
§ Mr. Alexander
Does the hon. Member extend his criticism to some of the boards which have been appointed by the Minister of Agriculture and other right hon. Gentlemen, under legislation passed by the present Government?
§ Mr. Petherick
There has been a great deal of difficulty, particularly with the board set up under the Herring Industry Act. The personnel of that board had to be changed. The whole matter came up for review last year because the machinery was not working well, and a new board had to be set up in different conditions. It is difficult to say that those boards or councils are working as smoothly as right hon. Gentlemen thought they were likely to do when they gave birth to this extraordinary series of children in 1930 and 1931. There are several other cases to which I should like to refer, but I do not wish to detain the House too long.
§ Mr. Petherick
I do not think it is clear from the Bill whether they would be whole-time appointments or not, but as apparently a remuneration would be paid, under the Financial Resolution which has not yet seen the light of day and I hope never will, but which will be found in Clause 7, it would appear that the appointments would be whole-time. How those seven wretched people would cope with the work which an ungrateful Parliament might put upon them I find it impossible to imagine.
I see a proviso in Clause 2 (3) that the duties of the Council in relation to agricultural matters are to be carried out in consultation with the Minister of Agriculture, but the object of that is not clear. I suppose it is in order to exercise over producers' boards a further general control which does not exist at the present time. I suppose, for instance, that they would examine the prices which a farmer gets, in order to make quite sure that he is not getting too much.
1299 Clause 4, with which I have some sympathy, lays it down, quite properly, that members of the Council must be bound to secrecy, and there are certain penalties if they betray their trust. That, I think, is perfectly right. I was a little alarmed in the summer, when what I believe is called the Sandys case arose, when hon. Members opposite seemed inclined to take the view that Civil Servants should be, not encouraged, but allowed in certain circumstances, to indulge in breaches of confidence with regard to secrets which had been committed to their charge. I am very glad to see that the authors of this Bill have thrown over any suggestion of that kind, and insist, quite rightly, that all the members of the Council—who would, after all, be practically Civil Servants—should subscribe a declaration of secrecy.
Clause 5 contains one or two interesting matters. A good deal has been made, in the speeches from both sides of the House to-day, of the question of free competition. As I read the Bill, it appears to me that not only have the Board of Trade to be satisfied, from the Council's report, that an excessive price has been charged, or an excessive charge for brokerage or commission has been made, but that these activities have in fact restricted the free play of competition. I find it very difficult to know exactly what is meant by this Clause, if, indeed, it means anything. The point was argued when the Bill was before the House in 1931, but nobody seemed to be able to explain exactly what it meant. There was some dim reference to anomalies, but I must confess that I am still in the dark on the matter.
There are very few other points in the Bill to which I desire to draw attention but Sub-section 2 of Clause 8 is, I think, the only good part of it. As a humanitarian, I am delighted to see it. It simply says:This Act shall not apply to Northern Ireland.The Second Schedule is of very great importance, and I do not think it is going much too far to say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Donner) said, that it is the absolute essence of the Bill. Some very drastic powers are outlined in the Schedule, which, I should have thought, ought to have appeared in the body of the Bill; 1300 but there is one very interesting point arising from the Schedule which to my mind makes the whole Bill perfectly farcical, and that is the lapse of time between the moment when the Council first begin to investigate the price of some particular article in which profiteering is alleged, and the moment when action is finally taken.
The Council, obviously, will have to take some time in investigating the allegation, or, if there is no allegation, in making their own investigation on their own initiative. That must take at least a month. Evidence has to be taken; people have to be called up from all over the country to give evidence before the Council. Then the report is made to the Board of Trade. Even the swiftest of Government Departments, in a case of that kind, would not be likely to be able to give a decision in much less than a month. They would have to make quite sure that the evidence presented to the Council was accurate, and that action was indeed necessary. That makes two months. Then three weeks are allowed for the making of representations in the event of an Order being likely to be made, and another week in which to consider the representations. That means that, if the Council begin to investigate the price, say, of soap, which has been mentioned—the price, say, of one particular kind of soap, like the common square yellow kitchen soap—on a certain day, three months afterwards some action is taken. Anybody, however, who follows retail or wholesale prices, knows that these prices do not remain stationary, and, if it takes three months to investigate before coming to a decision to fix the price, or before telling the sellers of the soap that they are charging too much, the price will probably have fluctuated considerably in that time. Therefore, the Council and the Board of Trade, not to mention the wretched traders and shopkeepers concerned, will be engaged in a work of supererogation, to put it mildly.
There are many other defects in the Bill to which I have not drawn attention. I feel that, if the Bill were passed into law, it would not only do absolutely no good in bringing down or preventing from rising the prices of various commodities which are essential to the people of this country, but it would have in addition the intense demerit of building up an- 1301 other department and causing more interference. I have always thought that, if you are going to have a real Socialist State—and this is a good step on the way to it—you have to combine it with some form of dictatorship, because it is quite impossible to put through all these forms of restriction and interference with the ordinary course of prices, with the ordinary life of the individual, unless powers are taken strictly and rigidly to enforce them, and that can only be done if there is a powerful dictatorship at the back of them. When hon. Members are advocating this form of interference, they must remember and beware of the very grave danger it involves of introducing under another form that which they are always professing most heartily to dislike and despise.
§ 2.14 p.m
§ Mr. McEntee
The remarks of the hon. Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. Petherick), and particularly his last remark, are interesting. One would imagine that we had no such thing as dictatorship to-day. I think his remarks ought really to have been addressed, not to Members on this side of the House, but to his right hon. Friends on the Front Government Bench. I do not remember any Government which has placed so many restrictions on the trader as have been placed upon him by the National Government, and all these restrictions, I should imagine, have been placed on the traders and on the community generally with the support of the hon. Member. I wish to speak about a trade of which I know something, namely, the timber trade, but, before doing so, I should like to bring the attention of hon. Members back to what the Bill really is. It is an extremely simple Measure, and its purpose is one which, I should imagine, every person in the community would desire to support. It may be argued, and I think it can be argued, about this Bill, as, indeed, it is argued about every Bill that comes before the House, that some of its details need alteration. I do not remember any Bill that ever came before this House, even a Bill introduced by the Government itself and drawn up by the Government's expert draughtsmen, that has not been altered in Committee. That being so, this Bill if it fails in detail can be altered in Committee. What the House does generally in discussing private 1302 Bills is to ask whether they serve a purpose that commends itself to the House.
As I have said, this Bill is a simple Bill. In one of its early Clauses it appoints a Council and it provides for the first time that two women shall be statutory members of it. I think that the hon. Member for Smethwick (Mr. Wise) must have been either crossed in love or unfortunately married, because his hostility to women stood out in every remark that he made. To me it is immaterial whether there are two or more women on the Council. The only question that Members of the House ought to consider is whether the members of the Council to be appointed would be efficient in their job? I should imagine that the Board of Trade, who are to appoint the members of the Council, would use their discretion wisely and appoint persons who are interested in the particular commodities that are likely to come before the Council for consideration. The Board of Trade would appoint persons who in their judgment—I am prepared to agree to the judgment of the National Government in this regard, though I am not generally enamoured of their judgment—are competent to do the job.
What would be the duty of the persons so appointed? Simply to investigate; often they have been asked by the Board of Trade to make investigations regarding particular commodities that are being sold, whether food or clothing or anything else. Where is the difficulty in making those investigations? It was done during the War and done very well. I ask hon. Members opposite whether there can be any reason why, if it is necessary to investigate prices during a war period when prices are rising, it is not equally necessary to investigate rising prices in peace time? The consumer is protected against profiteering in war time and why should he not be protected in peace time? The Council set up under the Bill would have power to obtain information and they could do the job effectively. Having obtained the information, they would make a recommendation. To whom? To the Government of the day. Apparently hon. Members opposite have not much confidence in the Government of the day. They do not trust the Government to carry out the responsibility of fixing reasonable prices.
§ Mr. Petherick
It is not that we do not trust any Government of the day. 1303 We do not think that the Government have the information at their disposal, nor do we think that the Government are as competent as the ordinary trader to say what price should be charged for individual goods.
§ Mr. McEntee
The hon. Member admitted that this thing was necessary in war time, but he did not tell us why the population should be protected against profiteering in war time and not in peace time. He talked about fixing prices, but fixing prices is not mentioned in the Bill. Regulating prices is very far from being the same thing. I shall be glad if we could be told why the public should be protected against profiteering only in war time. Prices are rising now in many commodities, though not in all. They are rising in the case of commodities where armaments are concerned. That is generally admitted; it has been admitted by Ministers in reply to questions put from this side of the House. The hon. Member for Enfield (Mr. Bull) complained about Members of the Council being summarily dismissed. The reasons for such summary dismissal would be that a member of the Council was not competent, that he did not show either ability or willingness to do his job. Surely it is right, if a man on the Council is proved incompetent or unwilling to do the job, that he should be dismissed. The hon. Member wanted to know how many new officials there were to be if the Bill were passed. It is very foolish to ask a question like that to-day when we already have officials working under the Food and Drugs Act, the Weights and Measures Act and scores of other Acts. Such officials are at work in all our towns to-day.
I want to come to the question of timber. I have bought timber and sold it. Having bought it and sold it, and understanding the timber trade somewhat, I see no difficulty about the regulating of prices. An hon. Member wrongly used the expression "fixing of prices." That indicates something that is fixed, something that cannot be altered except by some process that is stated. But the regulating of prices may be regulation on a formula or basis. The hon. Member spoke of the different kinds of timber and the different regulations regarding their importation. I know all about those regulations and the different terms that 1304 are used in regard to them. The hon. Member knows perfectly well that a formula could easily be adopted under which prices could rise and fall within the formula.
§ Mr. Petherick
I am interested in this point. The hon. Member has said that regulation and fixing are different. He has said that prices could rise and fall by a formula. What does he mean by that? Does he mean that there would be maximum and minimum prices within which the prices could move up or down? If so that is fixing prices.
§ Mr. McEntee
If prices change under a formula, obviously they are within the formula. Such a formula the Board of Trade have fixed and are fixing almost daily for other things, and there is no difficulty at all about it. In certain circumstances which, as the hon. Member must know, are operating every day in the timber trade, such a formula could be easily drawn up. Broadly speaking, the Bill has this one thing that is good: that it would prevent the exploitation of the public. That is its object. If there are any faults in the drafting of the Bill, the place to eliminate them is, obviously, in Committee. But I am afraid the opposition to the Bill is governed more by fear than anything else—fear that the public will get to know too much about the businesses affected and the prices they are charging.
§ 2.26 p.m
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Cross)
The House will not be surprised, in view of the speeches that have been made, to hear that this is not a Bill that the Government look at with favour. At the same time, we have this common ground: that we all desire that reasonable prices shall be charged for ordinary, everyday articles of common use. That is the common interest of everybody, or almost everybody, in the country. That is not to say that this Bill, with these wide powers of compulsion, is the only way, or indeed the best way, of ensuring that object. It is not to say that the universal use of powers of compulsion for extracting information from traders is the best way of treating traders; nor that the fixing of maximum prices is the best way of getting lower prices.
1305 The hon. Members who moved and seconded the Bill mentioned a number of specific grievances in relation to products every one of which, I think, came under the agricultural marketing schemes. Hon. Members will agree that it is to some extent the fact that there are already consumers' safeguards in respect of those products, under the Act passed by the party opposite in 1931. It would appear that the products those safeguards deal with would be exempted from the provisions of this Bill. It is true that there is a proviso that the Board of Trade must first satisfy itself that those safeguards are operating satisfactorily. I confess that that line of the Bill pleases me more than any other; I was delighted at the prospect of the Board of Trade sitting in judgment on the Ministry of Agriculture. But those consumers' safeguards would, in fact, be excepted; and that must be the intention of hon. Members supporting the Bill. They say that those safeguards are ineffective. The answer is that their remedy rests, not in this Bill but in the amendment of the agricultural marketing schemes. Therefore, the grievances advanced by these hon. Members are not, I submit, relevant to the Bill.
It is evident that the projected Consumers' Council would replace the Food Council. I submit that the test which should be applied to this Bill is, whether the Consumers' Council, with its very wide powers, would be an improvement on the existing Food Council. That involves considering whether legislation covering the whole field of articles in general use is necessary and desirable, and, if it is necessary, whether this is a wise and effective method of obtaining it. In my submission, the Bill will satisfy neither of those tests. Clause 3 invests the Council with most stringent powers of ensuring the production of detailed information by traders. Those powers, it seems to me, would inevitably antagonise traders. There was at one time difficulty in obtaining information from traders. That was more than 10 years ago. Since then there has been a far wider confidence built up by the Food Council, and it now enjoys a very great measure of good will. I am reinforced in that by the report of the Food Council for 1937, in which I read hat Government Departments, Marketing Boards, individual trades and co-operative societies responded readily 1306 to the requests for information. And we should bear in mind that they gave that information at some expense, and even with some degree of inconvenience to themselves. While the Food Council would have liked to have had more information on costs, they attribute their difficulty in this regard not to the fact that they have not powers of compulsion, but to the fact that traders themselves do not keep accounts which would enable them to give the information. I would be sorry to see the Food Council, which has been of so much value, abolished.
§ Mr. Cross
I need only mention the case of bread. In that case, the Food Council undoubtedly has been of value. Its reputation for integrity and fairness is an asset for the future, and one which, I think, we should be very reluctant to see dissipated. I saw the chairman of the Food Council, Mr. Geoffrey Peto, a few days ago, and he said, speaking with all his experience, that he is not seeking general compulsory powers. It is quite evident that he felt that a change in this direction would not be an improvement. Mr. Peto is an old friend of many of us in this House, and I think hon. Members would be glad if I took the opportunity, on their behalf as well as on behalf of the Board of Trade, of paying a tribute to what he has done. It is evident that traders should not be confronted with powers of extorting information, although I am not barring the door wholly against compulsion. It may be that in selected cases compulsion may be necessary. We have already got the necessary power under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act.
Let us turn to the question of price-fixing. Under Clause 5, the Council would have power to fix the price of every article of common use, under various headings, e.g., food, clothing and fuel. That power covers probably more than half the total expenditure of the British people. It is a very great power indeed. I am opposed to the principle of the fixing of maximum prices, not because it is inherently wicked, but because, in my view, it does not work. It is common knowledge that prices are not fixed, and cannot be fixed, at a level which is adequate only for the thoroughly efficient concern which enjoys additional 1307 advantages in the sense that it is fortunate from an economic standpoint. If you adopt that basis you either contribute to the bankruptcy of a vast number of less happily-placed concerns—and I think that any Government would hesitate to do that—or else, and far more probably, you lead to wholesale evasion of your fixed price. There were a number of examples after the War. I remember one—whether it is true or not is irrelevant; that it is possible is all that matters. It is the instance which has often been given before of somebody who wanted to get a bigger price for their apples. Whether that was justified or not is beside the point. Since the price fixed was lower than that desired, the apples were sold in a given quantity in a fancy basket. The price of the basket was not controlled, and consequently it was possible to charge for the apples a price which the retailer desired. Obviously you can ring the changes on this form and kind of evasion many times over and apply it to almost everything that is sold.
The alternative to fixing the price too low for many retailers is obviously that you should fix it on a basis which would be appropriate to those who, for one reason or another, are less economical concerns. We all know what happens then. There is a tendency for those who sell at a lower price to say that the Government price of the article is so-and-so and to reap a golden harvest at the expense of the community.
How strong that tendency is was shown by price fixing of tea during the War—an illustration with which the right hon. Gentleman will be familiar. Traders who specialised in the selling of tea made representation that they were likely to be undersold by traders who dealt both in tea and in other articles, because they thought that these people would sell their tea more cheaply in order to attract customers to their shops so that they would buy other articles, no doubt groceries. Accordingly, under this pressure at that time, it was made an offence to sell tea below the fixed maximum price. In other words, the price was wholly fixed. At Croydon—I do not know whether it was South Croydon—in June, 1918, a shopkeeper was fined £50 and 10 guineas costs for selling tea at 2s. 6d. instead of 2s. 8d. 1308 per lb. on the pretext that he had to meet co-operative competition. That is an illustration of the strong tendency there is when prices are fixed for the maximum price to become the minimum price. And so price fixing leads to this inescapable dilemma. Every price that is fixed is either too high or too low for a great many traders. Nor does price fixing accelerate the healthy and natural change which takes place under normal conditions, and which is taking place now, in the sense that the present position is that the more economic establishments are getting the trade of the less economical. The satisfaction of the consumer is the ultimate test of success or failure. Price fixing would not accelerate the promotion of that satisfaction or the tendency of the more economical concerns to get a larger share of business. On the contrary, sold by the more economical concerns at the Government price, it would tend to retard it to the detriment of consumers whose interests we were seeking to serve.
I understand that the promoters and supporters of this Bill have very much in mind the case of the combine or ring which is enjoying a virtual monopoly, and which is holding up the price of some common article against the consumer. The hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Acland) very much brought out that point, and I would say, in passing, that I very much welcome this assurance that the party opposite has given up Socialism, although I ought to warn him that, in saying things like that, he is not likely to increase his chances to form a liaison with hon. Members opposite. Love, they say is blind. Perhaps, therefore, it would be a waste of breath to remind the hon. Member that there is a place called East Bristol.
I was speaking of the question of combines and rings who are holding up price, and making an undue rate of profit upon articles of common use. It is the duty of the Food Council to attend to complaints of that kind and to investigate them if a case is made out. I would only say on the subject that if a case of that kind is brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend by the Food Council, he will certainly afford to the Food Council all requisite help, both in making its investigation and subsequently, if necessary, in ensuring that reasonable prices are charged.
§ Mr. Cross
Clearly every case would be dealt with on its merits in relation to its circumstances. As a general rule, the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the threat or idea that ad hoc legislation would be introduced is more than enough to settle such a question. Such cases are fortunately rare. So far I have not heard one since I have been in the Board of Trade. They are not, at all events, so prevalent that we require any general powers with which to deal with them. It is on these grounds that I say that each case can be dealt with separately according to its circumstances.
I am opposed to the fixing of a retail price on another ground, and that is, on the ground of impracticability. The provisions of the Bill cover a very wide field. It would presumably be the intention of the promoters of the Bill to concern themselves with the common articles of food. I would ask the question, What can you do with such things as meat and vegetables? They are every-day articles of foodstuffs which present very great difficulties, and there must be many others that would present similar difficulties. How can you fix the fair value of a joint of meat? No butcher could possibly state what is the cost to him of a particular joint. It is not a thing that is susceptible of accurate computation. Moreover, how can you define a joint of meat? If you are to define a joint of meat, you have to define how the animal is to be cut up, and that involves a limited number of specified standard cuts. You have entirely to eliminate the chance of the customer obtaining any variation of the standard joint which may suit his requirements. Even if you do that and define a joint of meat, who is to say that it is properly cut or that the butcher will put his knife through the imaginary dotted line which should be along the joint, or that it does not move rather to one side, and perhaps rather widely to one side, in order to cut the joint in such a way that the more valuable part of it is larger, and the one sold at the lower price is smaller than it should be. Further, how could you define the joint or the leg of mutton? It may be small, it may be large, it may be young, or it may be old. It may be of good or of poor quality, tough or tender, and it will have a different value per lb. in relationship to every one of these factors.
1310 Similar difficulties will be experienced in regard to green vegetables. The vegetables will vary according to size and quality and the regions from which they come. There will be complications as to rainfall, drought, sunshine, etc., and the effect of these weather conditions on the vegetables. All these things will influence the fair value of these articles. There would have to be an infinite variety of prices, if your prices are fair, and it would be beyond the capacity of a council such as that envisaged in the Bill, or any Government Department, to control the price of anything of the kind. More than that, in regard to some perishable articles, it would clearly be impossible to keep-up-to-date cost prices, because they would vary from day to day.
The prices, according to the Bill, are to be laid down in Orders which are to come before the House. The prices contained in those Orders are bound to be legion, and it would be impossible to afford to hon. Members adequate information upon which it would be possible for them to form an opinion as to the merits of the recommendations which the Government would be bringing forward in the Orders. I was interested in the book by Sir William Beveridge, to which reference has been made, in regard to British food control in the time of war. I noted the immense variety of prices which it would be necessary to have, taking only the instances of bacon, ham and lard. I will not worry the House by detailing the number of headings under which these prices would have to be made out. Certainly it would be impossible to give any variety of prices which would be fair, having regard to the vast list of prices that would have to be drawn up. Lastly, we should be confronted with a never-ending stream of these Orders, because of the change of the prices which would be found to take place, in consequence of such things as climatic conditions, and so forth. You cannot control supplies under the Bill, and you never can control a vast proportion of them, because so many of these goods come from overseas, and their values are subject to fluctuations according to the circumstances affecting world markets. Accordingly, under all these heads the Bill is quite unworkable.
There is one further point, and that is the factor of profit. Hon. Members opposite have indulged in a little 1311 theoretical badinage as to whether or not they believe in profit; but, as I understand the Bill, it contemplates a margin of profit for the retailer or the other trader handling the goods, on which he can live. I should like to know upon what principle or upon what fair and practicable basis it will be possible to decide what the margin of profit is to be. You cannot make it the same in every single case. There must be variation according to whether the article in question is perishable or durable. There would have to be variations according to whether the turnover is slow or rapid. In my submission you cannot define a basis that would be equitable, still less could you define a basis which would convince the trader, and it is important that he should be convinced, that he is receiving even-handed justice.
I wonder whether hon. Members opposite have considered what would be the political repercussions on the people of this country coming to regard the Government as responsible for the level of prices of certain commodities. There could be no doubt that in a period of rising prices if the Government were continually coming to the House of Commons with Orders raising prices, they would feel themselves in a particularly uncomfortable position.
§ Mr. Cross
The Government do not come to the House with orders regulating the ordinary price of commodities in everyday use—the price which is to be paid in the shops. That is the point to which I would ask the right hon. Member to direct his attention when he speaks. Such a state of affairs as I have envisaged would lead to incomparably greater political embarrassment than possibly could be created under any existing legislation. Let us take an extreme case. Let us assume that this kind of thing is going on in the weeks immediately preceding a general election. It is not far-fetched to envisage the Cabinet of the day considering whether it should endeavour to postpone the introduction of orders raising prices until after the election was over, considering some alternative artificial method of avoiding the rises taking place until, as every Government hopes, it has been returned once again to power. The 1312 time might come—we hope that it never would come—when a Government might yield to temptation of that kind. If it did so I think we would all agree that that is the kind of action that brings democracy into contempt and disrepute, as it has done in a number of continental countries.
The Debate has raised over old battlefields, and it is being fought with the same weapons with which it was fought before, because the Bill is substantially the same as the Bill introduced in 1930 and the opposition to it remains substantially the same. I submit, as did those who spoke against the Bill before, that the Bill is not necessary, and that even if it were, it is still a bad Measure. Its proposals are so powerful and so all-embracing that they are suitable in character, as some hon. Members have said, to a state of war or I would add to a dictatorship, but they are unsuitable to a democracy in a state of peace.
§ 2.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Alexander
The House will agree that while the basis of the Bill is bound to be regarded as highly controversial, the Debate has been conducted with a good deal of fair examination; but I am bound to say that I find it difficult to listen to the somewhat sweeping condemnation of the Bill from a Minister who represents a coalition Government containing a considerable number of Ministers who have quite clearly approved the principle of the Bill on former occasions. Those who have the nom de plume of National Liberals within the ranks of the Government were either members of the Committee which produced the Liberal Yellow Book on industrial policy, or they have by their support of that Yellow Book policy from the time of its publication and later periods, approved the principle laid down in the Yellow Book as a practical proposal of the kind of control of prices which has been referred to in to-day's Debate. I am rather intrigued, therefore, to know whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, I believe, was a member of the Yellow Book committee inquiry, and the Minister of Labour, share the view that has been expressed on behalf of the Government by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade. It would be interesting to know that. I am glad that my hon. Friend has taken advantage of his place in the ballot to raise this question.
1313 The protection of consumers in these matters needs to be kept before this House and the public. It is no use the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Donner) attacking the Bill on the ground that he believes it will fail to work. That is not an answer to the case we put forward for a real investigation of the facts. I know as well as any hon. Member, because I have the opportunity of knowing, that whatever measures may have been taken by this House or any administrative action by a Department, have failed entirely to produce evidence of a reliable character as to how profiteering can be measured and dealt with. That is why the argument of the hon. Member falls to the ground. He said that we have in view the fixing of prices, and that if prices are fixed at too high or too low a figure it will in the long run kill production. Stated as an academic principle no one would disagree with that, but the real position is that there is no really adequate information, no reliable technical information, available on which to judge prices at all.
We want real powers to investigate the facts, and that if the facts are investigated and if too high prices are being charged to the consumer we want power to remove the abuses. We do not want to enter into a widespread series of price-fixing arrangements, but we want power to deal with those cases in which the abuses necessitate first an inquiry and then to remove the abuse by fixing what is the true price. The real trouble is that most of those who oppose the Bill are very anxious that powers shall not be given to the authorities to know the facts. For 18 years, almost without ceasing, I have been engaged in Government inquiries before Royal Commissions and Departmental Committees. I know the way in which these inquiries are now conducted by Mr. Geoffrey Peto, to whom the Parliamentary Secretary has referred, the gentlemanly manner in which he conducts them. It is a case of "Come along; be good enough to tell us the truth." That is the sort of inquiry which is taking the place of a Royal Commission. From my experience of 18 years I say that in regard to the prices charged to the public to-day, wholesale and retail, on the main commodities there is no reliable information given to the public beyond the costs and figures submitted by the Co-operative movement. If the Government have 1314 other sources of information, will they tell me what they are?
It is true that there have been a number of specific inquiries into the margins of profit existing on some food commodities. There is the classic case of the Whitehead Committee of Inquiry into Milk Prices in 1925–26. At that inquiry I went into details of the costs in respect of the delivery of milk on the north side of London, and taking into account the highest measure of scientific treatment, bottling and trade union wages in distribution, I showed that our margin of profit was 2d. per gallon. This was followed by evidence submitted by a qualified accountant, on whom I make no reflection because he was presenting the case for the company, a great company in London, and he showed that on a much larger gallonage distribution than mine, that were it not for the profit they made on the delivery of other articles besides milk they would not make as much profit as they showed; and they produced figures showing a halfpenny per gallon profit on a much larger turnover than mine. I say that in that case it was quite impossible to get at the real facts without compulsory powers to take evidence on oath and have the books o examined by completely independent people.
§ Mr. Alexander
I am much obliged for the interruption. This particular company, which has a much larger distribution than mine, was actually setting off much of its overheads on articles other than milk. I have recently been giving evidence before a committee set up by the Government to deal with one of the commodities dealt with in the Bill—coal. The Movement which I represented before the Committee is selling between 6,000,000 and 7,000,000 tons of domestic coal per annum, not more than 25 per cent. to 27 per cent. of our domestic consumption. In order that we may get the real facts we asked our people to prepare on a national basis the figures, and to get them from every district. 1315 Finally, the distribution tonnage on which we based distributive costs covered 2,250,000 tons. We paid trade union rates of wages on this distribution, rates which are hardly ever paid by the provincial coal merchants, although I admit that in London many of the big coal merchants pay very good wages. I always like to admit the fact when employers give a square deal to their work-people, and I agree that many of the coal merchants in London are paying good wages, but in the provinces many of them pay wages that are much below the trade union rates. After paying those rates of wages and making every possible allowance in every department for costs, our figures showed an average profit per ton of from 2s. 5d. to rather more than 4s. The Coal Merchants Federation gave evidence before the Committee, but from all its widely-flung membership, it did not think it necessary to produce evidence on more than about 300,000 or 400,000 tons of coal, and on that amount it showed either small losses or hardly any profit. Who believes that? I have never heard of such humbug in my life.
The real trouble is that hon. Members opposite do not want the facts to be ascertained and do not want the people to know. That is our case for the Bill, and I have heard no answer to it to-day, nor am I likely to receive an answer. What concerns me is that the whole attitude of the Government is against giving a square deal to the consumers. I will go further. Take the case of cement. I happen to have been a member, since 1923, of the Departmental Committee on the prices of building materials. I know that I may be a little suspect in some Government quarters because in 1924, acting as temporary chairman, I signed the Departmental Committee's report which lead to the introduction of the Building Materials Bill of 1924, a Bill which was complained about as being a bit Socialist, and which was finally murdered. If one considers the position of the cement combine to-day and looks at the accounts of the principal companies, the bonuses that have been paid and the rates of profit that have been made, one cannot justify the present price of cement. What has happened? I have been a member of the Committee, and I am hound now to reveal the facts.
1316 I have signed two reports on cement, but they have not seen the light of day. The Government have not published them. I signed one report nearly two years ago, and the Minister of Health, rather than publish it, thought he might have a little private negotiation, and therefore, he adopted the extraordinary procedure of first showing a report condemning the margin of profit to the people who were making the profit, before the report was published. He then made a deal; he suggested that there should be some slight reduction in price, and claimed that to be a virtue. Another increase in price was made over 12 months ago. For the last two months the Government have had in their possession the signed report of the Committee, based on such facts as we were able to obtain even with the present limited powers; but that report has never seen the light of day. The same price for cement continues to be extorted from the general community.
That is what hon. Members opposite want. They want to keep up the god of profit. The hon. Member who moved the Amendment spoke as though the biggest calamity was to make a loss. In other words, the maintenance of our modern life, civilisation and standards of comfort depend upon profit. I wish hon. Members opposite thought in the same way when dealing with the unemployed; I wish they thought the same when dealing with the Means Test. There is no hesitation about inquiring into people's circumstances then, and there is no hesitation in publishing what are the standards of life when it comes to setting up a Means Test. But if you want to know what profit is being extorted from the community, it is a case of "hush-hush." We are told "Oh, yes, what you propose is perhaps very sound, but it is impracticable."
§ Mr. Donner
Is not the State the greatest profiteer of all and if it were not so, could we maintain the social services?
§ Mr. Alexander
I thought the State represented the whole of the people and that if profit was made by a State organisation, all citizens entered into enjoyment of that profit. I have heard a different definition of private profit, where people gather together, not merely to carry on individual trade, but in order to buy for a particular combination in the cheapest market and sell in the 1317 dearest, and at the highest margin of profit which they can extract from the community. Are these the profiteers, or is the State the profiteer which conducts its business for the benefit of the whole community and in whose case each citizen comes into the organisation on the ground floor, without the payment of a premium? The hon. Gentleman's academic argument on that point is not worth anything at all. We are dealing with the position as it is to-day.
Now I turn to one or two specific points made by the Parliamentary Secretary. He said that the special power for which we ask in Clause 3 would antagonise traders, and that the Government at present enjoyed the good will of those traders. All I have to say is that traders who have a clear conscience in these matters have nothing to fear. There is no suggestion that we should send out a roving commission of inquiry. All we want to do is to take those commodities in regard to which, undoubtedly, the feeling in the public mind is that too high a level of parity is being charged, and have them properly investigated. Mr. Peto tries to do that now. He sees me regularly and I give him all the best information that I can, based upon really sound and publicly audited accounts. When anything more is wanted by the Board of Trade they can send down anybody they like to look into the books and examine the working of the system. But Mr. Peto is unable to produce anything which is at all effective in restraining an abuse, and the Parliamentary Secretary has failed to cite a single instance in which his action has succeeded in restraining an abuse. Incidentally Mr. Geoffrey Peto is doing a piece of work which we think ought to be done, and doing it very well indeed within the powers which he has. He is a most charming personality, and I join with the Parliamentary Secretary in thanking him for what he is trying to do. But I cannot for the life of me understand, after all the hours of debate which I have had with him and his officials, how he can possibly say that he does not need compulsory powers I take the Parliamentary Secretary's word that he has given that advice to him, and I must attach it more to his political outlook than to the real evidence with which he has had to deal in his actual inquiries up to date.
1318 I pass to the remarks of the Parliamentary Secretary on the fixing of maximum prices. He cited the case of prosecutions in regard to tea during a period of control. He indicated that there had been a conviction because somebody during a period of war control had charged 2s. 6d. instead of 2s. 8d. As far as I can see, that has nothing to do with the kind of powers and the kind of cases which we have in mind in relation to this Bill.
§ Mr. Alexander
With very great respect, the present position of trade is such that that is so now, before we get these powers. When the hon. Member for Basingstoke said he would have thought that the competition that is now available was the best check on prices, he is talking in ignorance of trade. This is a question that I have to deal with every day, and the fact is that there are movements on the wholesale market, and that whatever price comes out on the retail market becomes more or less the fixed price, but many who get that price pay 10s., £1, and 30s., and in the case of branch managers £2 and £2 10s., a week less than the trade union rates which decent organised concerns have to pay, and their profits in consequence must be enormous. Is there any difficulty at all about this matter? None at all, provided you have the power first to ascertain the facts. We want the facts, and when we get the facts there will be no difficulty about fixing the prices.
The other main charge made to-day has been with regard to the number of officials that would be created. Of all the Members of Parliament who come and speak to us about the number of officials to be employed under a particular scheme, let us be spared protests from supporters of the present Government. I do not think there is any Government, in peace time or in the country's history, that has ever made as many bureaucrats as the present Government, in scheme after scheme, in Act after Act. When I hear about the possible tax effect of a scheme like this on the community, and remember that this is the Government which has put Income Tax up to 5s. 6d. in the £, plus another 1s. in National Defence Contribution on industrial profits, plus 1319 £112,000,000 increased Customs duties on the consumers, and when you talk to us about the petty cost of getting decent powers to check profiteering, well, I am amazed. I begin to feel that, after all, much of the case put up against the Bill is put up in the spirit of the Oxford Debating Society and does not deal with the serious position that we have to face as a community in the growing circumstances of financial stress, in respect of which the consumers have a right to be protected. The more the Government tax them, the more they have a right to say that they are not being profiteered out of. It may be that a Bill of this kind will not carry in a House composed as is the present House of Commons, but, so far as I am concerned, I shall never cease to use every opportunity of supporting any hon. Friend who seeks to assist the consumer, whether it be in food or in any of the commodities which have become necessary to domestic happiness, comfort, and standards of living, to get a square deal.
§ Mr. Maxwell Fyfe rose—
§ 3.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Fyfe
I will not detain the House long, but after the speech of the right hon. Member for the Hillsborough Division of Sheffield (Mr. Alexander), and after the attack which he has quite deliberately and, if I may say so, temperately made on us and our views, I think some short opportunity should be given by the House for an answer to be made. We have to consider and face the question of principle. On what grounds and for what reasons are we going to place a yet further restriction on the liberties of the people, into which great inroads have already been made? Although I am quite aware that the time has gone when we can rest it on so simple a basis as self-preservation, I should have thought that even the right hon. Gentleman could have agreed that restriction can only be justified where there is a serious danger to the community or a proved abuse.
§ Mr. Fyfe
I take the point. If the right hon. Gentleman, or any of his supporters who have put forward the case today, had endeavoured to show that a 1320 proved abuse existed, or had come within a mile of showing that fact, the response to their Bill would have been very different in this part of the House. Three examples have been given. The hon. Member for North-East Bethnal Green (Mr. Chater) referred to a statement in the "Pall Mall Gazette" 20 years ago as to the amount of War debt that could be attributed to profiteering—not the freshest or best evidence of the existence of abuse. The hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Woods) dealt with the question of cut-price shops. If the defence of this Measure is left to the use of such ammunition as the argument that because it is possible for certain people to obtain their goods in a way which is not permitted to others and thereby to gain a momentary advantage in price over others, therefore the other price is too high, I really submit that we are moving in realms of fantasy and not of fact.
I come to the two examples given by the right hon. Gentleman who has just addressed the House. He said that in the Whitehead inquiry into the price of milk he demonstrated—and no one disputes the rightness of the demonstration—that his price was the correct one. Then he went on to say, without the slightest evidence, that because others who were also concerned in the inquiry, who in their trading organisation had to meet with different problems and were organised in a different way from the organisation of the right hon. Gentleman, were able to show a profit of only ½d. per gallon, the evidence must be falsified somewhere, but he does not indicate where it is. I should have thought when one was dealing with a percentage of the price per gallon of milk, that if there were any falsification to the extent pointed out by the right hon. Gentleman, it would have been a matter of easy demonstration, by cross-examination, to find out where the discrepancy lay.
§ Mr. Alexander
The hon. Gentleman has put "falsification" into my mouth. I never made such a statement. What I said was that compared with the profits that we showed the thing did not seem reasonable and could be checked only by proper examination. That examination must include not only figures but the method of charging up services.
§ Mr. Fyfe
Then I will deal with coal. I thought he was applying them to milk, and I am sorry if I misunderstood him. I will take his coal figures. There, again, he was dealing with his own organisation, which supplies some 5,000,000 to 6,000,000 tons of coal retail, 27 per cent. of the total retail consumption of the country. His organisation showed a profit of, I think 25. 5d. to 4s. a ton.
§ Mr. Fyfe
Yes, varying according to districts. Then he said that because a coal merchant's association, who are dealing with an absolutely different problem, a problem infinitely more restricted in range, give results which show a small profit— or a loss in some cases—that that evidence—here there is no getting away from what he said—must be false and must be put forward with intent to mislead. If the right hon. Gentleman can only sustain his argument by making leaps in the dark from one broken evidential bridge to another, then I suggest that it is idle for him to try to get Members on this side to act upon such an argument. A lack of ability to comprehend the figures of those on the other side who take a different view is the flimsiest foundation for a charge of falsification that I have ever heard in the course of a life in which I have heard a good many. I challenge the right hon. Gentleman on his principle. If in the course of the 20 minutes during which he addressed the House he had given one example of a proved piece of profiteering he might have made some case; but if he says that because, in his view, there are matters calling for inquiry we should therefore restrict further the liberties of the people—not because of a proved abuse, but because of a highly contentious shortsage of information—I say unashamedly that I have in me sufficient of J. S. Mill to say that I am not going to consent to such a proposal.
§ Mr. Alexander
The hon. and learned Member has asked for one specific example. I can give all sorts of examples. Here is an advertisement, in a 1322 trade paper, of Howard's aspirins offering the chemist a good show bonus and 102 per cent. profit on a £10 order. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman justify 102 per cent. profit on a particular operation? I can go on to find him any number of cases in which the consumer is being actually "swotted"—profits of 50, 60, 70 and up to 100 per cent. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman justify that?
§ Mr. Fyfe
If the right hon. Gentleman and his Friends had put these examples before us at an earlier period than 28 minutes past three in the afternoon we might have had some chance of examining them. I am not going to be led into accepting them at this moment, when the right hon. Gentleman, perfectly properly, interrupts my speech to give them; but I do ask him to approach the question in that way; and I ask the House to say that there has been no proof to-day of the abuse of which he complains. What have we to do? On the right hon. Gentleman's plea for further information we are to impose upon the Council the duty of acting upon complaints made to them, without any limitation on the number of people who can complain. The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as anyone else that, even if he is right and there are matters calling for inquiry, there will inevitably be thousands, if not millions, of frivolous complaints from people who have some private axe to grind. All that is to be investigated. We say that more officials would be required, and we are met by hon. Gentlemen who say: "What do you know about local government? There are weights and measures' inspectors and food and drug inspectors." We may smile at the prospect of an inspector, whose normal duty is separating samples of food into three parts for the purpose of the Act, suddenly being changed over to considering the incidence of prices and how those prices are composed. It is idle to go off in that way.
Officials must come, and what will be the result when the complaints are made? There will be a procedure in which the small shopkeeper—I make not the slightest apology for defending here the small shopkeeper and his difficulties— will be brought up to a tribunal before which he will probably be unable to afford to be represented, where no charge is levelled against him, and where he will be subjected to a roving prosecution and to an 1323 examination of his methods of making up his books. Do hon. Gentlemen opposite think that we should lend ourselves to an inquisition of that kind? [An HON. MEMBER: "The means test."] The hon. Gentleman who interrupts me is just as mistaken as is the right hon. Gentleman. When we come to find out what is to be the optimum object and purpose of the Bill, we read that the council are to make a report to the Board of Trade that with respect to any commodity,an excessive price is being or is likely to be charged for that commodity,and in their recommendation the council are to "describe with precision" that commodity. We have got what that means, but we had to wait until my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Donner) stirred it up with the hon. Gentleman who moved the Second Reading of the Bill. It is to be a scientific analysis of the food content or worth content of the commodity. The unfortunate small tradesmen of cur northern towns are to be crowded out with his stock by having to keep a number of scientific analyses—[An HON. MEMBER: "Non-sense"] It is all right for the hon. Gentleman to say "nonsense"; then he must abandon the definition of the commodities which are to be covered by the Bill.
Sometimes, but very seldom nowadays, it is possible for us to do something concrete for liberty, apart from talking about it in the abstract. Here is an example, and I appeal to the House to reject the Bill, for which no case has been made out. The only thing that has been demonstrated is that the Bill will attack the interests, livelihood and comfort of a deserving class, the small shopkeepers of this country.
§ 3.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Lyons
I would ask the House to consider an angle of the subject which has not yet been discussed, that is, the provisions of Clause 2. Apparently the proposed Council, which is to be set up and paid for by the State as part of this great scheme of nation-wide interference, will haveto investigate all such questions relating to the production, distribution, supply or price of any commodity, being a commodity with which they are charged by this section to concern themselves, as may appear to them either from complaints made to them, or from other information in their possession, to require investigation.1324 I hope that hon. Members who vote for the Bill will realise what those words mean. Any Member of the proposed paid Council will be able to go to any shopkeeper, in consequence of any nebulous complaint reported to them, and to have a roving commission into the production and distribution of any commodity, never mind where or how produced or distributed. The Council will have the right to go to the source of any one of the commodities and to make some report upon it. Although, apparently, they have power to instigate a prosecution, they are quite unable to prosecute in respect of anything they dislike as the result of their investigations, because, as I read the Bill, a prosecution is only possible on contravention of an Order of the Board of Trade in reference to a price charged which the Board and the Council think improper. So they can investigate all the details, as far as the very source of supply, of any one of these commodities, and be quite powerless as the result of the investigation to take any action.
§ Mr. Alexander
We shall be very glad to have the legal advice of the hon. and learned Member in Committee in examining that point.
§ Mr. Lyons
If a case can be made out where profiteering is taking place unfairly against the consumer, I should be very glad at any time to co-operate with the right hon. Gentleman in order to bring about some remedy for such a state of affairs, which no one, either on this side or on the other side of the House, would want to defend. We all realise the vast experience of the right hon. Gentleman in matters of this nature, but this Bill, wide as its scope is and impossible as it is to put into effect the object at which it aims, will not bring about the very thing that the right hon. Gentleman desires. It will not stop an unfair advantage being taken, if it is being taken in any case. It merely sets up another board of officials, takes away the liberty of the shopkeeper, and gives power to this Council, about which we have really heard so little to-day, to probe into production and distribution wherever it may take place.
The provisions of Clause 2 really make the Bill ludicrous. I do not know who it is suggested shall be on the Council. I interrupted my hon. Friend earlier to ask whether any view had been ex- 1325 pressed, and the right hon. Gentleman again came to his feet and said, if I heard him correctly, that these gentlemen may or may not be whole-time officials. I think it is vital that we should know. If a body is to be set up by this House to probe into the details of almost every shopkeeper, is not the House entitled to know at the beginning whether it is to be a body of established Civil Servants, doing nothing else, or a body of gentlemen giving a certain part of their time, on payment, to this very important work? The right hon. Gentleman says that that is a Committee point. Is it? If this statutory body are to investigate any question of production in the case of any commodity anywhere, they might have to travel to the rubber distribution centre, or to the foreign source of production of something which is sold here by shopkeepers, and we ought to know now whether they are to be a whole-time body or not. Is the right hon. Gentleman really doing himself justice when he says that that is a Committee point?
§ Mr. Alexander
However wide that question may appear, if the hon. and learned Member wants it examined we can examine it in Committee.
§ Mr. Lyons
Can the right hon. Gentleman get away with that? I desire, and we all desire—I am sure there is no division of opinion upon it—that any customer in any shop shall get fair and reasonable treatment, and that fair and reasonable treatment, and no more, shall be received by the shopkeeper. How can it be said—and, if the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to say so, he has not really met this point at all—that by giving this roving commission to this nebulous body to investigate any question of production or distribution, supply or profit, we are going in any way to benefit the person making a purchase in a shop?
There is another side to the picture. This vast number of small shopkeepers are to-day carrying burdens of national taxation and local taxation which together are becoming well-nigh intolerable in many cases. You are going by this Bill to place them under the further disadvantage that at any moment the returns which they have to keep will be inspected. The Board's officials can go down and make inquiries into their trade and business. I would have thought that the right hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. 1326 Alexander), with his undoubted experience in these matters, would have given some safeguard whereby a prima facie case would have to be established before these inquiries could take place. My right hon. Friend was right in saying that we talked a lot about freedom. Here is an attempt to take away from every shopkeeper a freedom which in our view is essential. I hope the House will show, by rejection of the Bill, that it will not be a party to putting this control upon the shopkeeper, who has done nothing to justify it.
§ 3.42 p.m.
§ Commander Bower
I am bound to say that when I come here on Friday afternoons and look at Bills introduced by private Members of the party opposite, I always suspect an attempt to catch us bending on this side of the House and to slip through some little bit of Socialism by instalments. That is exactly the case this afternoon. I have not had the advantage of listening to the right hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander). I wish I had been able to be here. It seems to me, when I look at Clause 2, a little puzzling that the right hon. Gentleman should be so extremely keen on having this kind of inquisition set up. Does he really welcome such an inquiry into the affairs of the great organisation with which he is connected, and would he be prepared to give the House to-day figures of the difference between profits, say, in 1934 and 1938? Is he quite satisfied that in that great concern everything is so beautiful from the consumers' point of view that they have nothing about which to complain?
§ Mr. Alexander
At any rate we have nothing to hide, and for that reason we publish a balance-sheet with such detailed figures that anyone can understand the situation. We give the Government any information that they ask for. This Bill is no hardship to us.
§ Commander Bower
I am quite aware that the organisation publishes such balance-sheets, but still I am unable to see why the right hon. Gentleman should he so keen on this kind of proposal, unless it is yet another step towards driving the small man out of business altogether. Suppose that an investigation is made into the affairs of a co-operative society. The co-operators are a very heavily staffed organisation, and it is nothing to them 1327 to send one man, two men, 10 men or 100 men to appear before this Council of inquisitors. But what is to happen to the small man, the newsagent, stationer or tobacconist, the one-man business? I wonder whether hon. Members have really considered that small man. They do not usually pay much attention to him. If he is a newsagent in a working-class district he has to do the marking, folding and distribution of his papers between 4.30 and 5 in the morning. He is hard at work all day while his shop is open, and when the evening comes he has to sit down to his books and get on with them. Suppose that that type of man is taken away from his business. He might very well be ruined.
There are about 1,000,000 such small men in this country, men with their own businesses, which they run themselves or perhaps with their wives to help them or possibly one assistant. To take even one person away from such a business is a very grave hardship. I cannot help feeling that if this Bill were passed it would have a very detrimental effect on the small man, who is already being attacked from all angles, not only by co-operative societies, but by every big multiple organisation which exists to-day. Only the day before yesterday we were talking about small men in the fishing industry. Today we talk about the small man in the retail trade. Not enough consideration is given to these people by the party opposite. This is just another sample of projected State interference with the liberty of the individual, and we on this side stand for maintaining the liberty of the individual. The Bill is neither more nor less than a little bit of Socialism in disguise, and we do not propose to have that.
§ 3.46 p.m.
§ Mr. H. G. Williams
My hon. and gallant Friend has just described this Bill as a little bit of Socialism in disguise. For once, I am inclined to disagree with him. I believe a great deal of our modern legislation is much nearer to Fascism than to Socialism. I am not surprised at the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander), who, after all, is the outstanding leader of Fascism in practice in this country.
§ Mr. Williams
I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman should take such umbrage at my remark. But let us look at it.
§ Mr. Alexander
Will the hon. Member please remember that that kind of thing, printed in the OFFICIAL REPORT, is repeated, and repeated in different circles? Will he please withdraw it?
§ Mr. Williams
Let us first examine it, and find out whether it is false. My grievance against both my friends and my opponents is that they are all tarred with the same brush. I opposed the Coal Mines Act, which was the natural descendant of the Act passed by the party opposite. I also, for the same reason, opposed the two Bills promoted by the Government to deal with the cotton industry. What is Fascism? It is the Corporate State.
§ Mr. J. Morgan
Do you suggest that the other side are promoting Fascist measures, and you are supporting them?
§ Mr. Williams
We all have the habit of following false prophets at times. The object for which this House exists is to allow us to say what we think, and when we say things about persons they must not get cross.
§ Mr. Alexander
The hon. Member will withdraw the falsehood he uttered about me, or we shall have a very poor opinion of him.
§ Mr. Williams
The right hon. Gentleman has had that opinion for a long time. Fascists want to organise industry on a basis of economic interests. The next stage is to make it a political institution. When I see this great Co-operative scheme —[An How. MEMBER: "Is this in Order?"] It has all to do with the Consumers' Council scheme.
§ Mr. Thorne
Is the hon. Member aware that the Co-operative movement is governed by the rank and file of the members themselves?
§ Mr. Williams
That is true in theory of all corporations in Fascist States. We elect our Parliament on a regional basis. In Russia, so far as they have a Parlia- 1329 ment at all, it is elected on a basis of interests. The Co-operative movement in this country, which is a corporation of consumers—
§ Mr. Alexander
The hon. Member has got a little muddled. So far from being different from the corporation which he has previously adumbrated as being Fascist in conception, every Fascist council up to now has hastened to destroy any Co-operative society in its country.
§ Mr. Williams
I have never been able to find out the difference between Sovietism and Fascism. They seem the same to me—hate by one and love by the other—and I dislike both. As soon as these people organise themselves into a great corporation, the next thing is political activity, of which this Bill is an expression, and another thing is to make sure that the Co-operative society as such is represented in Parliament, as it is. The right hon. Gentleman is the most distinguished representative, and, I think, a very good one from their point of view. But he must not be cross because the significance of his representation has attention drawn to it. [Interruption.] The interesting thing is that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on my side still remain smiling, and hon. Gentlemen opposite are getting cross, which is always the sign of a weak case.
§ Mr. Alexander
The hon. Gentleman has riot been here to listen to a single argument. He is abusing the time of the House.
§ Mr. Williams
I took the precaution to read what was said in 1930. The right hon. Gentleman is so consistent that I do not think he would change his views in nine years. I was rather busy, and I thought that I might take as read his speech to-day as being the same as that delivered nine years ago. I pay him the tribute that he is at least consistent, even in error.
1330 I come to this new corporation which is to be set up—the Consumers' Council. As the right hon. Gentleman professes to represent more consumers than anyone else, naturally he will want to have a big representation on this Council, otherwise he will be profoundly disappointed. I do not think it is necessary to appoint such a Council, because the President of the Board of Trade has a good one working to-day to attend to all matters which call for investigation. The interesting result of these investigations is the discovery that the imaginary profiteering which is alleged does not exist.
§ Mr. Acland
If the hon. Gentleman had been present he would have heard cases quoted in which the present Food Council regretted that various boards and organisations of the Government had not the powers which we propose they should have in this Bill.
§ Mr. Williams
I was concerned with that institution for a year and a half and I never found any particular trouble.
§ Mr. Acland
Perhaps the hon. Member will read the Debate which has taken place to-day some time in 1948 and then he will know something about it.
§ Mr. Acland
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my speech he would have heard me say to what extent, in my view, the opinions of the Manchester School are rapidly passing out of date at the present time.
§ Mr. Williams
I did my best to listen. I saw the ticker go and the hon. Gentleman's name appear, and that seemed to be a good reason for continuing my lunch. I apologise. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, as one of the few survivors, now repudiates John Steuart Mill, Cobden and John Bright, who for much too long a period entirely dominated the minds of the people of this country. The pity is that he throws over nearly all the good things and retains all the bad. This Council, having gone through the requisite motions required in a Fascist system, ultimately presents to a Board of Trade a report, and then the Board of Trade is to proceed to regulate prices and charges. I believe the statement to be true that the Statute Books of nearly every 1331 country in the world are cluttered with price-regulating legislation which has invariably failed. I well remember during the War when we had this state of things in operation. The State by its action in going to war—let us remember that war is murder on a Socialist scale and interferes with the free flow of commodities—created an acute shortage. It was then necessary, since things were scarce—a scarcity brought on by the action of the State—that the State should take steps to prevent the scarcity inflicting undue hardship on the community. Therefore, we had a Food Ministry to regulate prices. It bought vast quantities of sugar, for example, on such unfavourable terms, as the State always does, that the price of sugar had to be put up unduly to the consumer. They put up the prices of other things by their lack of wisdom. A case in point was their action in regard to rabbits. [An HON. MEMBER: "Chestnuts."] No, chestnuts are a commodity in which the hon. Member indulges from time to time. I well remember the day when they fixed the price of a rabbit at 1s. 9d., and the effect was that from that moment no self-respecting rabbit would expose itself when it was liable to capture.
§ The automatic and instantaneous effect of price control at the wrong level is to create shortage. What hon. Members opposite do not realise about the law of supply and demand is that a period of high prices does more to bring plenty and that a period of low prices brings scarcity. Those who have abandoned the Manchester school have not realised present-day facts, because they pore over ancient books and have not learned the language in which to read any other.
§ Mr. Acland
I do not mind the hon. Member going on with his lunch while I am speaking, but I do mind him not having listened to what I have said and then coming here and abusing me for what he thinks I have said.
§ Mr. Williams
I regard the hon. Member as one of the few faithful Members of the historic Liberal party who follow the dictates of his party Whips, and that if he does not believe what the hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) believes he will lose his Whip on Monday.
§ Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ The House divided: Ayes, 81; Noes, 138.1333
|Division No. 32.]||AYES.||[4.0 p.m.|
|Acland, R. T. D. (Barnstaple)||George, Major G. Lloyd (Pembroke)||Paling, W.|
|Adams, D. M. (Poplar, S.)||Grenfell, D. R.||Parker, J.|
|Adamson, W. M.||Griffith, F. Kingsley (M'ddl'sbro, W.)||Parkinson, J. A.|
|Alexander, Rt. Hon. A. V. (H'lsbr.)||Griffiths, J. (Llanelly)||Pearson, A.|
|Attlee, Rt. Hon. C. R.||Groves, T. E.||Rathbone, Eleanor (English Univ's.)|
|Batey, J.||Hardie, Agnes||Sanders, W. S.|
|Bellenger, F. J.||Harris, Sir P. A.||Silkin, L.|
|Bann, Rt. Hon. W. W.||Hayday, A.||Simpson, F. B.|
|Benson, G.||Henderson, A. (Kingswinford)||Smith, Ben (Rotherhithe)|
|Bevan, A.||Hicks, E. G.||Smith, E. (Stoke)|
|Broad, F. A.||Jenkins, A. (Pontypool)||Sorensen, R. W.|
|Brown, C. (Mansfield)||John, W.||Stephen, C.|
|Charleton, H. C.||Kennedy, Rt. Hon. T.||Strauss, G. R. (Lambeth, N.)|
|Chater, D.||Lathan, G.||Summerskill, Dr. Edith|
|Cluse, W. S.||Lawson, J. J.||Thorne, W.|
|Cocks, F. S.||Leach, W.||Thurtle, E.|
|Collindridge, F.||McEntee, V. La T.||Tinker, J. J.|
|Daggar, G.||McGhee, H. G.||Viant, S. P.|
|Dalton, H.||MacLaren, A.||Walkden, A. G.|
|Davits, R. J, (Westhoughton)||MacNeill Weir, L.||Walker, J.|
|Davies, S. O. (Merthyr)||Mathers, G.||Williams, E. J. (Ogmore)|
|Ede, J. C.||Maxton, J.||Williams, T. (Don Valley)|
|Edwards, A. (Middlesbrough E.)||Messer, F.||Wilson, C. H. (Attercliffe)|
|Edwards, Sir C. (Bedwellty)||Montague, F.||Windsor, W. (Hull, C.)|
|Evans, D. O. (Cardigan)||Morgan, J. (York, W.R., Doncaster)||Young, Sir R. (Newton)|
|Evans, E. (Univ. of Waits)||Morrison, R. C. (Tottenham, N.)|
|Frankel, D.||Noel-Baker, P. J.||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—|
|Gardner, B. W.||Oliver, G. H.||Mr. Woods and Mr. Marshall.|
|Adams, S. V. T. (Leeds, W.)||Balfour, Capt. H. H. (Isle of Thanet)||Beauchamp, Sir B. C.|
|Alexander, Brig.-Gen. Sir W.||Balniel, Lord||Beaumont, Hon. R. E. B. (Portsm'h)|
|Anderson, Sir A. Garrett (C. of Ldn.)||Barclay-Harvey, Sir C. M.||Beit, Sir A. L.|
|Balfour, G. (Hampstead)||Beamish, Rear-Admiral T. P. H.||Bennett, Sir E. N.|
|Bernays, R. H.||Gritten, W, G. Howard||Rankin, Sir R.|
|Bossom, A. C.||Haslam, Henry (Horncastle)||Read, Sir H. S. (Aylesbury)|
|Bower, Comdr. R. T.||Hely-Hutchinson, M. R.||Reid, Sir D. D. (Down)|
|Briscoe, Capt. R. G.||Heneage, Lieut.-Colonel A. P.||Ropner, Colonel L.|
|Broadbridge, Sir G. T.||Hepburn, P. G. T. Buchan-||Rosbotham, Sir T.|
|Brooklebank, Sir Edmund||Holmes, J. S.||Russell, Sir Alexander|
|Brooks, H. (Lewisham, W.)||Hogg, Hon. Q. McG.||Salmon, Sir I.|
|Brawn, Brig.-Gen. H. C. (Newbury)||Howitt, Dr. A. B.||Samuel, M. R. A.|
|Bull, B. B.||Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hack., N.)||Sandeman, Sir N. S.|
|Bullock, Capt. M.||Hulbert, N. J.||Selley, H. R.|
|Burghley, Lord||Hume, Sir G. H.||Simmonds, O. E.|
|Campbell, Sir E. T.||Hunloke, H. P.||Simon, Rt. Hon. Sir J. A.|
|Castlereagh, Viscount||Hurd, Sir P. A.||Smiles, Lieut.-Colonel Sir W. D.|
|Cayzer, Sir C. W. (City of Chester)||Inskip, Rt. Hon. Sir T. W. H.||Smith, Bracewell (Dulwich)|
|Cazalet, Thelma (Islington, E.)||Keeling, E. H.||Smith, Sir R. W. (Aberdeen)|
|Clarke, Colonel R. S. (E, Grinstead)||Kerr, Colonel C. I. (Montrose)||Somervell, Rt. Hon. Sir Donald|
|Cobb, Captain E. C. (Preston)||Kerr, H. W. (Oldham)||Somerville, A. A. (Windsor)|
|Cooke, J. D. (Hammersmith, S.)||Lambert, Rt. Hon. G.||Southby, Commander Sir A. R. J.|
|Courthope, Col. Rt. Hon. Sir G. L.||Latham, Sir P.||Spears, Brigadier-General E. L.|
|Cox, Trevor||Leighton, Major B. E. P.||Stanley, Rt. Hon. Oliver (W'm'ld)|
|Cross, R. H.||Lennox-Boyd, A. T. L.||Stourton, Major Hon. J. J.|
|Crowder, J. F. E.||Lewis, O.||Stuart, Hon. J. (Moray and Nairn)|
|De la Bère, R.||Llewellin, Colonel J. J.||Sueter, Rear-Admiral Sir M. F.|
|Denville, Alfred||Lloyd, G. W.||Tasker, Sir R. I.|
|Doland, G. F.||Lyons, A. M.||Taylor, C. S. (Eastbourne)|
|Dower, Lieut.-Col. A. V. G.||Macdonald, Capt. P. (Isle of Wight)||Taylor, Vice-Adm. E. A. (Padd., S.)|
|Drewe, C.||Maitland, Sir Adam||Thorneycroft, G. E. P.|
|Dugdale, Captain T. L.||Makins, Brig.-Gen. Sir E.||Tufnell, Lieut.-Commander R. L.|
|Duggan, H. J.||Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R.||Walker-Smith, Sir J.|
|Duncan, J. A. L.||Marsden, Commander A.||Waterhouse, Captain C.|
|Ellis, Sir G.||Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J.||Watt, Major G. S. Harvie|
|Elliston, Capt. G. S.||Mitchell. Sir W. Lane (Streatham)||Wells, Sir Sydney|
|Emmott, C. E. G. C.||Moore, Lieut,-Col. Sir T. C. R.||Whiteley, Major J. P. (Buckingham)|
|Erskine-Hill, A. G.||Moreing, A. C.||Williams, H. G. (Croydon, S.)|
|Everard, Sir William Lindsay||Morgan, J. (York, W.R., Doncaster)||Wilson, Lt.-Col. Sir A. T. (Hitchin)|
|Fox, Sir G. W. G.||Muirhead, Lt.-Col. A. J.||Windsor-Clive, Lieut.-Colonel G.|
|Fremantle, Sir F. E.||O'Neill, Rt. Hon. Sir Hugh||Wise, A. R.|
|Furness, S. N.||Peake, O.||Wright, Winy-Commander J. A. C.|
|Gilmour, Lt.-Col. Rt. Hon. Sir J.||Perkins, W. R. D.||Young, A. S. L. (Partick)|
|Gluekstein, L. H.||Petherick, M.|
|Cower, Sir R. V.||Ponsonby, Col. C. E.||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—|
|Gridley, Sir A. B.||Pownall, Lt.-Col. Sir Assheton||Mr. Grant-Ferris and Mr. Donner.|
|Grimston, R. V.||Ramsbotham, H.|
§ Question proposed, "That the proposed words be there added."
§ Several Hon. Members rose—
§ It being after Four of the Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.
§ The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.1334
§ Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 2.
§ Adjourned at Nine Minutes after Four o'Clock until Monday next, 13th February.