HC Deb 25 July 1941 vol 373 cc1211-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. A. Young.]

Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)

On Tuesday last, at Question time, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kettering (Captain Profumo) raised the question about the announced intention of the Ministry of Food to do away with rationed foodstuffs supplies to all shopkeepers with less than 25 registered customers. My right hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food replied. May I say that, like everyone in this House, I am glad to see he has been elevated to that great circle of His Majesty's advisers. In his reply he went to a considerable extent towards giving way to the arguments we had put forward. He said that there was no intention, and no desire, to be unfair to the small shopkeeper. In fact, according to him, local authorities had been instructed to see that no hardship was inflicted on anyone but that there was a certain minority who were using their licences as traders to buy for themselves at wholesale prices, and that they would be properly dealt with.

It is not for us to inquire into what went on inside the Ministry of Food in changing their original intentions. I do not know who was for maintaining the plan or who was against it. I imagine that my right hon. and gallant Friend would hardly be the son of his father unless he took the part of the small man, who is not a powerful figure in our national life but who is a very important one, a man who has gone through great hardship since this war began. But while we were very glad that Lord Woolton and his advisers had seen fit to give way on this point, many of us felt that the Parliamentary Secretary should be given an opportunity of making a fuller statement on an occasion such as this, and, perhaps, explaining the process of thought which caused the Ministry of Food to conceive so harsh and unjust a measure. Briefly, the story is this: The "Daily Sketch" announced, about three weeks ago, that this plan was to be put in hand.

Mr. Granville (Eye)

The limitation plan?

Mr. Baxter

Yes, the original plan, that of no allocation of rationed foodstuffs except to traders with more than 25 customers. I telephoned to the Ministry of Food and spoke to a responsible official, who told me that what had appeared was true—that the plan would be carried into effect on 28th July, and that the week previous, that is, last Monday to next Monday, those numerically insufficient customers, those who were unfortunate enough to belong to a group of less than 25, would be ordered to register elsewhere. That was the plan of the Ministry of Food. I am quite convinced, in spite of anything my right hon. and gallant Friend may say, that if some of us had not protested about this matter that edict would have gone into force next Monday, with all the hardship it would entail, hardship and ruin on a very large scale. Perhaps my right hon. and gallant Friend will say that the profits of the small shopkeeper on rationed foodstuffs, if he has less than 25 customers, are a small, paltry, few shillings a week. I think the figure has been given; it is something like 6s. or 7s. a week. But the entire profits of the little shopkeeper are paltry. He is a little man, he is not very important. But what happens, supposing that his profit is 6s., 7s. or 8s. a week on the rationed foodstuffs, when his customers are ordered to register elsewhere? They will not come to him for unrationed goods, and go for rationed goods elsewhere, where they can get both. Therefore, it was, indeed, a sentence of death for the little trader.

I said that the small shopkeeper has had a very rough time. In my own constituency I have seen cases of it, and some hon. Members have probably seen even worse cases in their constituencies. Take the case of a little man selling sweets. He has done so for some years, with a couple of schools to supply him with customers. Suddenly that area is evacuated and it is as if the Pied Piper of Hamelin had appeared. The children go away. It seems a trivial matter; but there is his little shop; the bell at the door does not ring so often; it is grimly silent and another man and his wife are facing ruin, at a time when they cannot start a new life. This edict of the Ministry of Food was on a vast scale. It was not to be gradual, but abrupt and decisive. Do not imagine that it did not affect a great many people. In London it would have effected 8,000 to 10,000 shopkeepers; in Manchester, 700; and so on through the country. Therefore, I think we are justified in protesting as loudly as we can, with our pens and with our voices. To bring the edict of Whitehall into relation with human values one must ask: Who are these people who would have incurred the Department's wrath for doing business on so small a scale? In many cases, they are spinsters with no other livelihood, widows with no other livelihood, or daughters supporting their aged parents. But those are still the exceptions. The average little shopkeeper is a man supporting a wife and family. His roots are in the soil of that locality. His children are educated there. He goes to the local church. Perhaps he is a member of the chamber of commerce; but he is an individual, a sturdy fellow, who belongs to that now far-distant day when men took their own decisions, and did not regard themselves merely as assistants, which is the tendency to-day.

Were the customers of these little men to be told, "You must go down the road and give your custom to this man's competitor, who has 27 customers ''? That would be laughable, cruel, ironic. The vast majority of his customers would have been driven to this steadily expanding octopus of the chain stores. It would be foolish to fulminate too strongly against the chain stores. They are run efficiently, and there are enough of them to make them competitive, so that their prices are not too high. But the tendency of this Government in this war, on the domestic front, has been to strengthen more and more the great combines at the expense of the individual. One sees it in the Pharmacy and Medicines Bill, which we have been discussing lately. One sees it everywhere. Perhaps the bureaucracy of Whitehall finds it easier to deal with big units than to bother about small units. I give this warning to the House, that, while, at present, these great chain stores are competitive, it is a habit of great and powerful competitors sometimes to get together, to combine eventually, in fact if not in name. I saw with my own eyes the rise of the chain store in Germany after the last war, until all over Germany the individual trader was disappearing, and these chain stores, by their very character, their very omnipotence, were paving the way for the greatest octopus of all—State control, State ownership, State direction, to which, I pray to Heaven, we shall not have to come, even in this most terrible of wars.

I do not think we want to see the little man put out of business. I do not think that my right hon. and gallant Friend or Lord Woolton wants to see it. The small trader is not very important politically. He is a "lone wolf," operating in his small neighbourhood. He cannot affect either national or local elections. Surely, this is the place where we should protect the man who cannot speak loudly for himself. It is only fair to say that out of the vast correspondence I have received from shopkeepers on this question, there are some who say that the Ministry of Food are looking after them better than they have ever been looked after before. That is worth saying. I have a feeling that those who say it are shopkeepers with just over 25 customers; nevertheless, they do write that way. We are very grateful to the Ministry for deciding to punish the offenders among the small shopkeepers, and not to indict them as a class. I think this occasion has been worth while. It will give the Parliamentary Secretary a chance to expand his replies of last Tuesday.

Mr. Doland (Balham and Tooting)

I, too, would appeal to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, as far as I am able to do so, in connection with this matter of the restriction of supplies to shopkeepers with not more than 25 customers for coupon trading. I have listened to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman on many occasions, when he has answered questions appertaining to this problem. In the majority of instances, I think, the answer has been that the profit derived by these, small traders was so infinitesimal that it was not worth troubling about. My hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) is not, I believe, personally interested in this question, whereas I am interested. I admit that I am perhaps interested financially. It should be remembered that it is not only the commodities which come within the purview of coupon trading that are affected, but other commodities which are not yet rationed. People will go for those commodities to the shops where they are sent for the coupon commodities. This is a very insidious method, which I fear is spreading, not only in the Ministry of Food but in other Departments of State, of crushing out the small trader. The incidence of war has, undoubtedly, done a great deal in this direction, and has closed many places of business for the small shopkeeper.

I take a prominent part in the affairs of the borough in which I live—I have been mayor twice, and am now an alderman— and in that borough I have ascertained that no fewer than 941 shops have closed owing, primarily, to the incidence of war. That borough is, I admit, the largest in London. But, that is in one borough alone, and there are 28 such boroughs, even though all are not of that size. When we come to the provinces and the country generally, surely we must realise that it is time we called a halt to these restrictions, the latest of which have been made by the Ministry of Food. I represent many organisations—the National Chamber of Trade and the Federation of London Traders—and they have all received lately a document known as a questionnaire. This contains 20 or 30 questions for the traders to answer and send back to the Board of Trade Committee, which was set up by the Minister to consider these questions not only during, but after the war. There is no doubt that, in regard to two or three of these questions the assumption is that, ultimately, and sooner perhaps than we know, many more shops will have to close.

I appeal to the Minister in regard to this Order, to go a little further. He has gone some little way—in allowing the appeal to be made on behalf of small shopkeepers, particularly, as I understand it, in the rural districts, but I ask him to go further and reconsider the whole question. This is a vital question which is troubling us all. I would ask the right hon. and gallant Gentleman whether there is any co-ordination between the Ministry of Food, the Ministry of Supply and the President of the Board of Trade in regard to shop keeping generally, and is it the intention of the Government that shops should close in order to help the Ministries to carry out their work? Let us know what is expected, but do not squeeze us out by insidious methods. I sincerely trust that the Minister will reconsider the matter and save the livelihood, not only of these men, but particularly of these women, who do not look for big profits, but are satisfied, in many instances, if by their little shops they can earn sufficient to pay the rent of the other portion of the premises in which they live. This is a very serious matter for thousands of small traders in the Kingdom, and I hope that the Minister will try to do something better than has already been done.

Captain Cunningham-Reid (St. Marylebone)

I would like to ask my right hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food one question, but before doing so I wish to join with my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) in congratulating him upon the honour that has recently and so deservedly been bestowed upon him. My hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green has so ably pleaded the case of the small shopkeeper that there is nothing I can usefully add, but I want to ask a question about the small restaurant keeper. I happen to know, as no doubt my. right hon. and gallant Friend knows, that there are hundreds of small restaurant-keepers who to-day are finding considerable difficulty in making a living. The reason is a very simple one. It is because they are seriously limited to the amount of rationed food which they are now allowed, while they are up against the fact that communal restaurants and canteens in their districts compete with them and at the same time are allowed a very generous supply of rationed foods. The small restaurant keeper therefore cannot hope to compete with the communal restaurants or the canteens. I would ask my right hon. and gallant Friend, when he takes this matter into consideration, to bear in mind that the livelihood of many humble small restaurant-keepers depends upon being able to carry on, and that the same anxiety and necessity does not apply to communal restaurants or such like. In view of the position the small restaurant-keeper is placed in to-day, I would ask my right hon. and gallant Friend whether he can give any indication that such citizens will be given the same food advantages as are obtainable by the communal centres, work canteens and such like?

Wing-Commander James (Wellingborough)

My hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) has raised this matter with such eloquence and used such convincing arguments that I inter- vene only for a few moments. The feeling on this matter is very widespread, and in my constituency and adjoining areas there has been very strong resentment at these restrictions. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green, but after his eloquent opening speech there is no need to say more than that there are many honourable Members who would like to support the proposal.

Mr. Granville (Eye)

I would like to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) as the champion of the small shopkeeper. Usually we have to wait for my hon. Friend until the end of the week when in his case the pen is mightier than the spoken word. But I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Wing-Commander James) that he has given us a very eloquent speech in defence of the liberty of the small shopkeeper. I hope that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, who is to reply, will make it absolutely clear, not only to this House, but to the country, that he has made up his mind that the small shopkeeper is not to be allowed to suffer. My right hon. and gallant Friend comes from a great line of Liberal tradition. It used to be said that this country was a nation of shopkeepers. If my right hon. and gallant Friend visits, as he has done before, my part of the country in Suffolk, he will find that there are still many shopkeepers in these small villages, scattered over the rural districts of East Anglia. I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a tendency to regard London as England, and what is happening in Whitehall and Westminster as the right perspective, but the provinces are the heart of England, and very often the backbone of England. I hope that my right hon. and gallant Friend will make clear that the small shopkeepers are to be allowed to continue their part in the food business of the country. I did not have the opportunity of hearing his speech yesterday, but I read it in the OFFICIAL REPORT, and the impression I get from that speech is that the object which my right hon. and gallant Friend has in view, is that they are to be safeguarded by his Department.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Clifton Brown)

It is not in order on this occasion to refer to a speech made in Committee of Supply.

Mr. Granville

There are many villages, hamlets or parishes which have not 25 families. Sometimes a small shop is half a store and half a post-office, and the owner, in addition to being a shopkeeper, is an agent for a coal and coke company. In these districts, many of which are in ocupation by military, transport is extremely difficult. In some distant areas it is non-existent, and if you take away the small shop from the village people will be unable to do their ordinary food shopping. Moreover, I should have thought that with the prospect of invasion it would have been advantageous, apart from the ordinary food arrangements, to have our food distributed over as large an area as possible and in as many shops as possible. With the transfer of population from certain coastal areas further inland and evacuation from towns to rural districts, I quite recognise that my right hon. and gallant Friend has a pretty difficult job to do. In my judgment he is one of the great successes of that Front Bench and I want him to realise that the whole House of Commons is behind him in trying to solve the extremely difficult problems which confront him to-day. But despite this constant change of the population I ask him to do what I know he is never afraid to do and to tell some of his civil servants that it is better to have food scattered throughout the country, in as many shops as possible, so that whatever may be the outcome of the coming autumn, we may be certain there will be food available for people in the remote areas. For these reasons and because I represent a rural area of considerable size, I desire to reinforce the appeals which have been made on behalf of the small shopkeeper. I would ask the right hon. and gallant Gentleman not to forget these people in his schemes for the future. I would ask him to make it perfectly clear now not only to the House of Commons but to the country that that is the decision of his Department.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Major Lloyd George)

I am not sure whether I understand the purpose of this discussion correctly. I always understood that a discussion on the Adjournment took place because somebody was dissatisfied with something which had been done. But I would suggest that we have met the case which has been put forward on behalf of the small shopkeeper. With regard to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Wye (Mr. Granville), villages and hamlets were in effect not included in the Order. If he had read an Answer I gave to a Question on the 16th of this month, he would have found that remote villages where it was obviously difficult to get supplies were not included.

Mr. Granville

What is a remote village?

Major Lloyd George

It is a hardship if a consumer in a remote district has to go elsewhere for foodstuffs. As I have said, such villages were never intended to be included in this Order. With regard to the advisability of using all available resources for food storage, I can assure my hon. Friend that this matter has been completely covered in the way he suggests by the dispersal of stocks in every part of the country.

I think Members of the House will accept the fact that we have now met the position in the towns and the country. We have extended to the towns what has been previously the case only in the villages. I do not think there is any need for me to give the assurance that it is not my wish or the wish of anybody else in the Ministry of Food to put the small man out of business, but unfortunately war has put people out of business, and it is not confined to the Ministry of Food. It is inevitable with the limitation of supplies that if you cut supplies, you either seriously curtail business or put people out of business. This is not because anybody wishes to do so. Nobody in my Ministry has the slightest desire to put anybody out of business large or small.

I want to give the House the reasons why we did in fact have to suggest this arrangement at the beginning. There is a very serious shortage of labour available for transport purposes and, despite what has been said, in shops; and when you have a large number of small packages which have to be delivered to many people it does enormously increase the transport and labour involved in making up the packages and in clerical work. It may be interesting to the House if I give one example. Take the case of the man with 24 registrations—although, as I have said, that need not arise now. The largest parcel that could possibly be issued per week to one of these traders would be a 12 lb. parcel and the smallest parcel would be 3 lb.

Sir Henry Morris-Jones (Denbigh)

Of one commodity or several?

Major Lloyd George

Of one commodity. Some of these people deal with more than one wholesaler. In one case which was brought to my knowledge 3 lb. of cheese was divided into two because it came from two separate wholesalers, and there is no doubt whatever that our contention that saving would result is absolutely unanswerable. Now let me come to the statement that 1,200 shopkeepers in one town have been thrown out of business. If they all stocked eight rationed commodities—the question of meat does not arise—there would be nearly 10,000 parcels which would have to be delivered a week in that area alone. Not one of these parcels could properly be more than 12 lb. in weight. I am putting this forward only in order to show that we have given this matter a good deal of thought. An investigation made in several towns recently showed that out of some 2,000 traders 23 retailers had less than five registrations and that 83 had less than 10. There is no doubt in my mind that these people are not genuine traders in these commodities, and we have ample evidence, some of it from the people themselves, that they took out retail licences in order to be able to supply themselves and their families with food at wholesale prices.

Mr. Doland

Why not eliminate them?

Major Lloyd George

That is what we are doing, and I am trying to explain what led us to take this action and the justification for it. If I may say it without offending anybody, I think there has been rather a lot of highly coloured talk about what is happening. There has been talk about a person who has 16 registrations being ruined. I would point out to the House that the gross profit on 16 registrations would be about 5s. a week, and I cannot agree that a gross profit of 5s. a week would make all the difference between a living and complete ruin.

Mr. Doland

I pointed out in my remarks that it was not only a question of rationed foodstuffs but of other foodstuffs, and that they would lose their trade in other foodstuffs because they could not get the rationed commodities.

Major Lloyd George

All the same, let us admit frankly that there has been some highly coloured talk about the position. My hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) wrote an article in a newspaper the other day concerning this matter, and the portrait he painted was in bright colours.

Mr. Baxter

I had to penetrate some dark minds.

Major Lloyd George

I think it was a question of blinding rather than of penetrating. He wrote about, as he has to-day talked about, the "steadily expanding octopus of the chain stores," and said that we were driving all the small men, the backbone of the country, out of business, and increasing the grip of this octopus-like creature, the chain store. I am interested that my hon. Friend took that point of view, because the newspaper in which the article appeared is, in a sense, one of the biggest chain stores this country has ever had. I do not know how many newspapers are involved, or in how many newspapers the article appeared, but I think it is fair to say that it is a chain store of journalism, and that the "commodities" of the small independent men have disappeared, at any rate as far as independence is concerned.

However, I want to stress again that we had no intention whatever of inflicting hardship on these people or driving them out of business by this measure which we were compelled to consider because of the serious drain upon the transport and labour resources of the country. I should be the last person to inflict hardship on little men in any part of the country. I am glad to say now that the situation in the towns will be exactly what it is in the country. Those who are not bona fide traders, those who have taken out retail licences only in order to enable themselves to get food at wholesale prices, will not be regarded—and I do not think any hon. Member would wish them to be regarded— as bona fide traders, but instructions were issued at the beginning of this week that cases in which there was hardship either to the consumers or to the shopkeepers should be very seriously considered. What we are really anxious to do is to discourage those who are not in business for business purposes.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Captain Cunningham-Reid) referred to restaurant keepers. I am not sure that I quite followed his point, but I gather it was that the small restaurant keeper would be at a disadvantage. The fact is that all restaurant keepers come under the same allocation, as do all catering establishments, and these restaurants will be in exactly the same position as anyone else.

Captain Cunningham-Reid

My point was that works' canteens and communal restaurants are apparently able to get as much rationed food as they require, to the disadvantage of the small restaurant keeper in the district.

Major Lloyd George

My hon. and gallant Friend is quite wrong. Canteens get an allocation based upon the number of people they serve. That is the only basis, and it is wrong to say that they get unlimited supplies of rationed foods. I think that I have met the points that have been raised, and I hope that my hon. Friend who raised the matter is now satisfied.

Major Sir Jocelyn Lucas (Portsmouth, South)

I want to draw attention to the difficult position of small shopkeepers in the town a part of which I have the honour to represent. Many of them are ex-Service men having quite small businesses, and now many of their registrations are to be transferred from them. These people have to contend with most difficult conditions, and I hope that my right hon. and gallant Friend will make a special case of people in that position, because otherwise many who are genuine traders will be put out of business.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.