HC Deb 10 April 1941 vol 370 cc1761-70
Mr. Butcher (Holland-with-Boston)

It is a long way, even for an Adjournment Debate, from the conditions attaching to the production of raw materials in a part of the Colonial Empire to the matter which I want to bring to the attention of the House, namely, the limitation of supplies as it affects the retail distributive industry. The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies said that production of copper was a new and growing industry; but retail distribution is one of the oldest businesses, and at the present time it is certainly not a growing industry. There is rather a definite tendency—and quite rightly so—for it to decline. My purpose in raising the matter is to ask for some guidance from the Board of Trade. There is a widespread feeling of doubt among retailers of all classes as to what is to be their future and what steps they should take to assist the national effort to the maximum of their ability. There is a desire to have some definite guidance on this point.

At the same time, I do not disguise that there is widespread anxiety that old-established family businesses, and the stores that have developed from them, are very likely to be handicapped if there is to be telescoping of retail distribution on the lines laid down by the President of the Board of Trade in a recent Debate. There is, indeed, already a feeling that the chain stores have many advantages which they are using to the utmost against the man whose business is limited to one locality. The chain stores are able to switch goods which they cannot sell readily in depressed or evacuated districts to areas where trade is good, with the result that they have in those areas more on their shelves for sale than have the family businesses. I cannot quite understand the attitude of the Board of Trade in this matter. The President of the Board of Trade told the House that he could not say that he was ready with his plans. My right hon. Friend has a great business reputation behind him, and I hope he will not lose his business habits now that he has entered Parliament. Surely, he will realise that it is the duty of any prudent business man to have his plans laid right from the raw material to the finished product. I think we are entitled to have far more guidance on this matter than we have had so far. It would be a terrible thing if, after having made great sacrifices in leaving the City and coming here to give us the benefit of his experience, he were to go down in history as "Oliver the Unready." I am trying to prevent that happening by providing the representative of his Department with an opportunity of giving us some assurance on this matter.

Let us examine the thoughts disclosed by the President of the Board of Trade, which I consider disturbing. He says that the relative balance between the share of trade now enjoyed by the multiple stores, the Co-operative societies, and that enjoyed by the small retailer should not be disturbed. I am bound to say that I do not see any reason why any balance should be observed if by disturbing it we can make a more effective contribution to the war effort. There are, however, certain essentials in the retail trade which should be preserved. First, there is the Cooperative society. I am not a Co-operative society man, and frequently when the right hon. Gentleman who is now First Lord of the Admiralty urged their case from the Opposition bench I thought he over-stated it. I think they have received very favourable treatment in the past. I do not, however, disguise the fact that they make a definite appeal to many people with whom they deal, and that their relations with their customers must be preserved in the national interest. They are local in character and they understand the people they serve. Therefore, I think they merit preservation in the future.

Then there is the family business. I am not going to make any sob appeal for what is called the small shopkeeper. I am merely putting this question forward with a view to enabling the retail distributive trade to make its greatest contribution to the national effort. The family business makes a very great contribution indeed. There is constant personal contact between the proprietor and the customer, and there is local knowledge of requirements and flexibility in the treatment of people who are temporarily embarrassed. All these things are of definite help and assistance at the present time. Indeed, this class of the community has made a great contribution to the welfare of the country in the past.

Finally, there is the case to be made for the large store—the store with many departments. The large store has, after all, grown up from the family business. They marshal together under one roof many requirements and offer perhaps a variety of certain articles which cannot be obtained elsewhere. They too, with the others I have mentioned—the Cooperative society and the family trader—should be preserved at all costs. They lend themselves very satisfactorily to the work of distribution. I need not stress the point of the Co-operative Society. Family businesses are able to provide employment for many who would not be able to accept ordinary employment, and make temporary arrangements with neighbours and business associates, and thereby to telescope themselves on the lines the President of the Board of Trade has suggested. Stores are equally able to lend themselves to war-time working, because on the whole they maintain a comparatively large percentage of elderly assistants. They have good systems of staff training which lends itself to the introduction of newcomers into the industry, or the retraining of those who have left for marriage or other reasons.

At Question Time I made a suggestion which, I think, the President referred to in his speech. He stated it had been suggested that he should take a course actually diverting trade from the big chain stores into the hands of small retailers. He stated that he must not do that and that he must be impartial. I hope this idea of impartiality will not weaken our war effort in the same way as the idea of neutrality has weakened collective security. After all, we are en- titled to look to the President of the Board of Trade for something more than impartiality. We are entitled to look to him to organise trade in this country in the best possible way, so that it can make a valuable contribution to the war effort. He is really responsible for the production of plans to enable the retail trade to play its full part in the war, in exactly the same way as the Minister of Labour is responsible for plans to enable manpower and woman-power to take its full part.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

Is not that consistent with impartiality?

Mr. Butcher

I am not at the moment weighing the possibility of being consistent or inconsistent. All I am saying is that it is desirable the President of the Board of Trade should direct his attention to the mobilisation of the maximum resources of which any industry may be capable, irrespective of whether it inflicts hardship on one section of that industry more as compared with another—just as in the case of man-power, where greater hardship is inflicted on certain people than on others. The President of the Board of Trade is faced with two problems. Firstly, to secure the maximum employment of those who remain in the retail industry, and, secondly, to release the largest number of workers possible who are suitable for diversion into the war effort. I suggest that it is in the chain stores where that can be done, namely, by rapidly diverting the supplies which they are at present receiving. It is in that sphere that the President of the Board of Trade will most effectively secure his end. These stores employ a large number of easily trained young women, who in most cases are unmarried, of suitable age for transference. By so doing, very valuable floor-space could be passed over to the Ministry of Food for the establishment of restaurants. The Minister of Food would have the advantage of sites which have been picked by some of the keenest people in the art of appealing to the populace. At the same time my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour would secure an easily trainable body of young people to take their part in the national war effort.

I hope that when I mentioned two firms by name in my earlier Question, it will not be thought that I have any particular animosity against them. I mentioned Messrs. Woolworth and Marks and Spencer, but I have no hostility against them. Nor are any of the remarks I make in this Debate affected by any interest, because I have none in any branch of the retail trade. Having made my position quite clear, I am bound to say that the record of these firms is not such as entitles them to the benefit of the protection of the President of the Board of Trade. These are the people who have gone into the country towns and villages and have bought up sites over the heads of the local traders who have been established for years, and, having bought the sites, have pulled down buildings of considerable interest and value and put up in their place horrid red or green structures. Let it not be forgotten that at a time of acute industrial and economic depression in this country, these firms were making profits running into millions of pounds, were declaring substantial dividends, employing their girl labour for three days in the week, and forcing the girls to go to the Employment Exchange to draw their dole for the other days.

If it is a question of equity to these firms and a question of the maximum production of the country, freeing valuable labour and space, I hope the President will let them take their chance, as so many drawn from all classes of the community have to do. If, however, impartiality is to be the policy of the Board of Trade, why was not this introduced a little earlier? Why should not this balance between these various forms of retail distribution have been introduced, let us say, after the last war, when the problems were not dissimilar. We have certain small businesses in which the owners and their sons have fought in three wars. I know a case where a substantial business is being carried on by a man of nearly 80 with his two daughters-in-law, while his sons are serving in the Armed Forces. I hope no step will be taken by the Government which will jeopardise the position of people like that. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to make as clear a statement as is possible of the definite plans for the retail distributive industry to play its maximum part in the war effort, and to take special care that the position of businesses whose owners or managing directors or their sons have gone into the Armed Forces, is in no way prejudiced.

We know that this consolidation of distribution must come. I want to know what assistance is to be given by the Government in the matter? Is there to be assistance such as is given by the Industrial and Export Council? Is it proposed that such advice and assistance will be available on a regional basis? I do not ask for any guarantee as to the position of the small man. He is willing, and he must in war-time take his lot with everyone else. But, on the other hand, there is a widespread feeling throughout the country that we are not waging this war so that the industry and commerce of the country will finish up in the hands of the banks and insurance companies, with boards of chartered accountants and no one to whom they are responsible. Already the trusts have started to buy up businesses in hard-hit areas. We want an assurance, therefore, and I hope my hon. and gallant Friend will give it us. I hope that family businesses and large stores which have to endure diminution as the result of the war can be assured of the assistance of the Government in re-establishing themselves and that they shall not be subjected to unfair competition, but that all the efforts of the President will be directed to two ends, first, to extract from the distributive industry as a whole the maximum contribution that it can make to the war effort and, secondly, that there shall be no deterioration in those sections of this industry whose contribution to our national life is and will continue to be so valuable.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Captain Waterhonse)

My hon. Friend at one period of his remarks said that no plan was yet evolved for safeguarding the interests of retail shops, and he hoped my right hon. Friend would not go down to history as "Oliver the Unready". We all hope that, but no more do we want him to go down to history as Oliver Twist, because I am certain the House would not wish that the screw should be put on before the necessity arises. The policy of the Board of Trade in this as in other matters is to take as long a view as we can but to meet problems as they arise. After all, the whole essence of government is that we must carry the governed along with us. The Board of Trade is prepared to lead, but it cannot lead along a path for which the country is not ready.

If my right hon. Friend had come forward with a plan for concentration of industry, like that which he outlined in the House a few weeks ago, six, nine or twelve months sooner, it would obviously have been impossible, because the necessity had not then arisen. It has become necessary now, and we have our scheme. But in the retail trade it is only just now that these Limitation of Supplies Orders are beginning to be widely felt in the shops and by consumers. We are not allowing ourselves to wander in the dark. We have in the Board of Trade a small section of about a dozen ladies and gentlemen who are called Area Distribution Officers. Their one and only task is to go round the country, each having a district allotted to him or her, to keep in touch with retailers in those districts and to keep the Board of Trade informed as to the problems of the retailers and the difficulties of consumers in acquiring any particular commodity. By that means we are aware of the many problems which arise from time to time and which must increasingly arise in the retail trade. These problems are in no way concerned with the concentration of industry. They arise because of the general shortage of supplies necessitated by war conditions.

My hon. Friend suggested telescoping of retail trade. It is not a very easy thing to telescope such an organisation as our retailers' organisations. It does not compare with telescoping the industries of the country, and, as my right hon. Friend said, even there the very smallest units would not be concentrated at all. There are some sections without doubt, where some form of telescoping is possible, and there it may and I think will come about, but I most profoundly disagree with my hon. Friend when he cavils at my right hon. Friend because he says he is going to be impartial. I do not think the time will ever come when a Minister will say that he is anything but impartial. It is clear that my hon. Friend has no illusions that he is impartial. He is death on the large store-keeper and on the fellow who goes into the small country town and because of his greater business acumen sets up a store there. We may not like it, but after all that is the modern trend of business, and it is not for the Board of Trade to use the war as a means of bringing about a change in that respect.

My hon. Friend put several specific questions. He asked us to be particularly careful to safeguard the owner of a business who goes into the Forces. The House and the country must be profoundly sympathetic with such a man, but it is difficult to see in what way the Government could help. After all, he is only one example of many forms of hardship which the war is inflicting, and I am afraid that I should be deceiving my hon. Friend were I to say that any special provision could be made for the man who went to the Armed Forces because he owned a small shop rather than the man who was in any other form of business, trade or profession. My hon. Friend asked whether any advice and assistance which was available would be available on a regional basis. It must, of course, be on a regional basis; otherwise, it would be of very little use because the problems of shopkeepers vary so much from district to district. Another question was with regard to the family business and the large store, and my hon. Friend asked that there should be no unfair competition and that there should be a guarantee of Government assistance to the owner of the family business who finds himself in difficulty. It is clearly impossible for the Government to give any such guarantee. The war is adversely affecting so large a section of the community that to give a guarantee in this direction would be grossly unfair in many other directions.

It is not easy at this stage to see in exactly what way the retail trade can react to the present conditions. The reports which are coming in show that the turnover has not materially decreased in many areas, although in other areas it has decreased. But we, and shopkeepers themselves, know that as time goes on there will be a marked decrease in turnover, and a time must arise—and we might as well face it—when it will be necessary for some small shopkeepers to charge excessive prices as a result of their reduced turnover or they will not get a livelihood out of their little shops. What is such a shopkeeper to do? Is he to go on until the time comes when he can buy less and less stores in replacement each week and has to live on his capital? He will use his discretion to a large extent, but it seems to me that there is a great deal to be said for the suggestion that many small shopkeepers who see this time approaching should realise their present stocks, invest the money in Government securities and find other jobs for the time being so that when the war is over they may go back to their shops with a certain amount of capital to re-equip them and enable them to start again. This, of course, is merely one suggestion as to a way in which the difficulty might be met.

With regard to the larger stores, there is undoubtedly a possibility of some form of telescoping. My right hon. Friend quoted an article from the "Draper's Record," in which they themselves suggested that it might not be impossible for one or two or three of these stores to get together and concentrate their businesses in one set of premises. I am sure the House will agree that it is far better that these matters should be brought about by suggestion and by an amicable arrangement by the shops themselves rather than that they should have a plan or a scheme forced down their throats by the Board of Trade. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Board of Trade are not oblivious to this problem. It is a problem that we have seen coming, and it is only with us partially, but it will get worse and worse during the months ahead. We hope that the shops themselves, so far as they can, will collaborate with the effort of the country by releasing voluntarily as much labour as possible. The Ministry of Labour have always the power to take what labour they need when they need it, but that is a sanction which we hope will not need to be used, because we think that these things can come about by agreement.

My right hon. Friend will not be persuaded to move from his position of impartiality. He wants to hold the balance fairly between the large storekeeper and the small shopkeeper. He does not want to be accused of using the war to alter according to his own desire the distribution which has grown up by long practice. It should be clearly understood that these two classes of business each in their own way fulfil a different service. The smaller shopkeeper has his personal body of clients, and he generally gives credit; the larger storekeeper has a greater variety of goods; both have their functions to fulfil, and I am certain that the House would not wish us to favour one rather than the other. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point, be- cause it is a point of real importance, and I can assure him that the remarks he has made will be borne in mind.