§ Lieutenant Butcher (Holland-with-Boston)
The House will allow me to say how grateful we are to the right hon. Gentleman for the statistics he has given, showing the extent to which the manpower and woman-power of this country have been organised for the furtherance of the war effort. There was a very significant sentence in his peroration, in which he said that this great mobilisation had taken place almost without a ripple on the surface of our industrial life. I believe that that is perfectly right, and in a few moments I intend to dip beneath the surface upon which no ripple appears and show some of the effects in the distribu 429 tive and retail industry which have resulted directly from this intensive mobilisation of man-power and the diversion of people from the distributive trades to the productive side of the nation's life. It is not a new subject to be raised in this House. I apologise to many Members, knowing how well they are informed and interested in the question of work under the Essential Work Order. But, as the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) has said, this is the back benchers' day out, and he will forgive me for having my fling. The topic I am raising is one in which other Members, including the hon. Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère) and East Birkenhead (Mr. Graham White), have been concerned. It is a subject in which we are all interested, because so many people in the retail industry are represented by us, and we have our duty towards them.
I find that I raised this subject on 10th April, 1941, following a statement by the present Minister of Production, who was then President of the Board of Trade, and I am glad that on 30th May the Retail Trade Committee was appointed. Two Interim Reports have already been received, and a third is awaited at the present time. The Committee has been rather handicapped in this question of dealing with retail distribution by the absence of a proper census of distribution. The Retail Trade Committee in their second Interim Report referred to this. In the absence of such information, there is a tendency to confused thinking. Let me give one example, which I believe is an entire misconception. In some quarters it is thought that an individual trader, that is, one whose capital and enterprise are locked up in one undertaking, is less efficient than his competitors. I do not believe that to be the case. I believe that had the Board of Trade been more careful before the war in preparing these statistics and getting the information it would have been shown quite conclusively that the individual trader is a most efficient unit of distribution. But we have to get on with this job in the absence of detailed information, and do the best we can.
I shall not make any attack on any other form of distribution agency, certainly not on the co-operative societies, nor on the large stores, nor on the multiple shops. Each of these can speak for themselves and doubtless will do so. They 430 speak through advertisements in the Press and chairmens' reports and in various other ways. In all these ways they make their views and thoughts known to the people of this country. I intend to try and put the case of the difficulties of the individual trader, and by that I mean the efficient individual trader. There is no question of asking for protection for the inefficient man or of suggesting that because a man happens to be a small man he should be kept in business, however inefficient he may be. Certainly not. My plea is that this body of the community with whom I am concerned shall receive proper attention, and attention in time. The retail trade has, on the whole, stood up very well to the incidence of war. Indeed many traders have had a far larger measure of prosperity than they dared to think was coming to them in the opening days. That has been due, first, to more regular and larger wages which in many cases have rightly been spent, I think, on the children, the home and greater personal comfort.
In this picture of general prosperity which I think has obtained up to now there are black pages which cannot be overlooked. Take the trader on the South-East coast. How differently he has been situated from a trader in a reception area. The South-East coast was first a reception area; then the population was removed. Now the trader's important seasonal trade is shorn away from him by the area being scheduled as a Defence area. On the other hand, take the position in a safe and remote area such as the Lake District, where the trader, through no enterprise or initiative of his own, has had his potential market increased. New customers have come swimming in without any exertion on his part. Differences between district and district have been, are, and must be, affected by the war. The individual trader in an area has not had the same chance in standing up to the incidence of war as have those distributive organisations which have been able to deflect goods and personnel from the hard-hit areas from which people have gone to the more prosperous areas. There is very deep concern indeed about the future. The shelves are getting emptier, the stocks are not coming in the big parcels in which they used to come, the wholesalers are constantly reducing them. Only to-day, quite rightly, there are further restrictions in the supply of commodities, 431 so that more people may be placed into actual productive work connected with the war.
I do not believe in beating about the bush in these matters. I say to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade that there is a very widespread feeling that the Government as a whole favour the large unit. Government institutions like to deal with central organisations. They like an organisation with a large office, that can employ expert guidance, with excellent secretaries, with good professional advice. They rather like to conduct discussions by the courtly interchange of memoranda, the one to the other. They do not like the bluff methods of the market place, where a man takes another man's word because they are friends. I am sure that when he replies the Parliamentary Secretary will say "No" very loudly and emphatically. Let me ask him to examine one or two cases. Take the Controllers appointed by the Ministry of Supply, who are in the main the salaried representatives of the large corporations. Let him turn back the pages of the OFFICIAL REPORT and see how many times the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works and Buildings has had to answer questions about Wimpeys at a time when plant and personnel of smaller contractors were unemployed.
Let him have a word with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport. If two parcels of the same weight are despatched from the same manufacturer to two shops in the same town, one of them a multiple shop with an overriding arrangement with the railway company, and the other to an ordinary individual trader, do they pay the same rates of carriage? I think you will find some difference in that. I am glad to see the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food in his place. On the whole, I think that the Ministry of Food have been pretty good in this matter, though not 100 per cent. as they should have been, but they have been much better than the Board of Trade. I hope there is no truth in the suggestion in the "Daily Express" to-day that there is to be put forward any proposal which will put hundreds of thousands of small milk retailers out of business.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Major Lloyd George)
Let me say at once that there is no truth whatever in that report.
§ Lieutenant Butcher
I am very grateful to my right hon. and gallant Friend for that assurance. I felt sure that he was too wise a Parliamentarian to forget the experience of the present Postmaster-General in dealing with the milkmen. But he has made his mistakes. I brought to his notice the question of the distribution of oranges. Of the oranges which went to a certain area there was a special earmarking given to one multiple store. I do not see why my right hon. and gallant Friend should allow the local food committees to permit these multiple stores, as they have done, suddenly to start selling onions at a time of shortage. In regard to the points rationing scheme, he has made another mistake, which I hope he will correct. He made a mistake when he allowed shops which had not sold points-rationed commodities to start doing so. I can understand some of the reasons; I can see that it would secure a greater use of the labour, and perhaps make an alternative food supply available inside the same shop. But I do not like the way this has gone.
I see the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. E. Walkden) in his place. He raised the question of some of these points-controlled goods being sold below the controlled price. I am sure that that is happening. A certain firm in the north of England sells tins of Libby's sausage meat at 2s. 1d. a lb. The wholesale price, packed, is 2s. 1¼d., and the retail maximum price is 2s. 6d. Who are the philanthropists; and who pays for it? I say, quite frankly, that the thought of re-registration is in the minds of these people. They want to attract the public for re-registration purposes, and for the period after the war. They say, "We cannot spend what we used to spend on advertising, because the newspapers will not give us the space. We cannot spend what we used to spend in various ways. But let us do this; it will not cost us anything, because we shall save on E.P.T." Let us be fair to the Ministry of Food. Their system has helped, in the main, the ordinary grocery covering a wide range of commodities, and there has been an increasing tendency for the people of this country to register with the general 433 grocery. I think my right hon. and gallant Friend would be doing a good thing if he would suggest, by public advertisement, at the time of re-registration, that that sort of thing should take place. [Interruption.] He says that he must be impartial, Let me commend it then to the "Daily Express." It is not a bad thing to suggest that people should go to one shop for their commodities. It would mean a saving of time for the purchaser, a saving of time for the assistants, and the pushing of traffic off the public service vehicles, by getting people to shop in the stores or in the co-operative society, near their place of business or their place of living.
The Board of Trade, I am bound to say, has not so good a reputation. Take, for example, the question of clothing. Only last Tuesday there was, in the "Daily Telegraph," a complaint by the Federation of Merchant Tailors that the fixed prices of utility clothing had played into the hands of the multiple firms. Those firms can manufacture at prices with which the individual craftsman cannot possibly compete. These are the people who, by the enormous contracts placed with them for-Service clothing, have had their survival fully assured. The big firms have been cutting hundreds of thousands of garments on what we can call pre-austerity fashions, to be made up in the coming months. The tailors in Boston, in Spalding, and elsewhere, wherever they may be, are affected by these restrictions imposed by the Board of Trade. It is not, I believe, done deliberately. The Board of Trade have no malice! I do not believe that they think about these things, and about how the small man will be affected. They get a memorandum, they have it approved by the economists, they make an Order; then, rather ruefully, they see the results. We all know that there is a limitation of the goods available for distribution. The manufacturer is, rightly, limited by quota as to the amount he may make. There the Board of Trade stops. Why should not the retailer have the right to a quota of the manufacturer's quota? One of the more sinister things is the way these stores are now selling a far wider range of goods than before the war. It is true that, under the Location of Industries Order, this has been stopped; but it has happened too late. I took the trouble this morning to go into one of these stores. Over the door was the 434 notice, "3d. and 6d. Stores." There are gramophone records there at 2s. 3d. each, and ladies' overalls at 5s. If the quota of these things had been fairly distributed between retailer and retailer, this firm would not have been able to cut into the markets for these goods, for the simple reason that it did not have a pre-war trade in them.
I make a plea to my hon. and gallant Friend to recognise the value of the individual trader and his real worth in the make-up of the country. I see the Leader of the House present. We are all grateful to him for his great devotion to duty. We thank him for the inspiring messages he gives on the wireless. He does not disguise his Socialist views: there is no reason why he should. There is no reason, either, for me to disguise my belief in free enterprise. I believe that the man living in the town where he was born, in the shop which his father had before him and which he wishes to pass on to his son, should be one of the most valuable assets in our national life. Certainly such men are making their contribution. Whom shall we call as a witness? Let us call the Minister of Home Security. Let us ask him, "Sir, how would your wardens' service fare if we were to strip from it all the men engaged in retail trade? How would your fire service, your ambulance service, and your other voluntary services, fare?" The answer is that this section of the community is doing its share, and more, in carrying the burden. If we are to have this concentration of trade, as we must, we have to make quite sure that we preserve what is worth preserving, and scrap what is not.
I referred to one of these stores which I was in this morning. I well remember those black days when the unemployment figures in this country were over 2,000,000. This store—Woolworths—was making enormous profits, running into millions, and was employing girls three days a week and permitting them to draw unemployment benefit at the local branch of the employment exchange for the remaining three days of the week. My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster says that it is true. It is true, and it is within the knowledge of everybody. Is a firm like that worth preserving in the new England that we are going to build? I went into their shop to-day. There were commodities laid on the counter and behind the counter stood young women that my right hon. Friend the Minister of 435 Labour could make use of in the war effort. There a light is burning that should be extinguished. This would ease the problem of my hon. and gallant Friend, who is to reply later, and all the goods on the counter could be distributed to other shops. We ought not to have any talk about preserving the balance between the big man and the little man. My hon. and gallant Friend and I crossed swords on this matter in Parliament last year. He said that I was death to the big man. Not many of them have died since, but does not the Government policy in any case mean death to the little man?
When the individual shopkeeper is called up for National Service he has to go unless he can show two things. What are these two things? The first is that his business is essential in the national effort. I am not going to grumble at the Ministry of Labour. I have made representations to them on behalf of shopkeepers in my widely spread constituency. They have done a very good and sympathetic job of work in the Ministry of Labour. It is easy to kick Ministry of Labour officials, but they are dealing with human nature, and they have done a jolly good job of work. The second thing is that the individual shopkeeper can get postponement on account of personal hardship, which is frequently given to him so that he can dispose of his business. It is not good enough to expect the small man to go and fight and allow the big stores, the multiple chain stores and the co-operative society to remain in business, because when you have put the little man out of business he loses his all. If you shut down a department in a big store, they are ready to open again as soon as there is labour available, and when they close down a redundant branch, they are able to increase their profits and the goods are available in the other branches that remain open. I know that there is a lot that can be said for that, but the spirit in the small individual is worth preserving. I was reading not long ago a letter which appeared in the "Birmingham Mail" on quite a different subject, written by Sir Ernest Conning, a former Lord Mayor. It said:Difficulties in employment groups require an intensified drive at the present time because of the operation of the concentration of industry removing workers from a small concern, where usually the spirit is good, to 436 larger concerns, where the difficulties of carrying on savings are greater.I do not know what the remedy of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will be on this matter. I think it will lie along the lines of licensing—probably some system that will prevent the great financial corporation from coming into a country town and stripping the living from a dozen or half a dozen businesses may be instituted. It is a problem that has to be dealt with, and dealt with very soon indeed. The Board of Trade have had one lesson on how easy it is not to interpret public opinion correctly. I refer to the proposed fuel rationing scheme. The slight ripple on the waters that the fuel scheme has caused will be as nothing to what will occur if we do not secure at a very early date some assurance that these grand people, these small traders, are to receive a certain amount of consideration from the Government. They have full confidence in the Prime Minister, in the Leader of the House, and in the Minister of Labour, but it is temporarily shaken in the President of the Board of Trade. Nevertheless, they have confidence in the Government as a whole and believe that the Government will not let them down. They will fight and make any sacrifice on behalf of this country. All that they ask is that they shall have a chance of carrying on their businesses, so that their sons and daughters, who are now wearing the King's uniform, shall be able to come back and have the chance of following them on. It will be recognised by the Government, as it is recognised by "The Times" newspaper, and by this House, that they are an essential, valuable and indispensable section of the community whom we would lose at our peril and whom we would never be able to replace.
§ Mr. Leslie (Sedgefield)
We all listened with interest to the speech of the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Holland-with-Boston (Lieutenant Butcher), and certainly I am entirely with him in his plea for the efficient trader, but when he mentioned free enterprise, I was reminded that it used to be said that competition was the lifeblood of trade, but, unfortunately, very often it was the death of the trader. As a one-time worker in the distributive trade, and the son of a grocer, I am naturally interested in the subject of trade, and my sympathy goes 437 out to the genuine trader, to the man who has served his time and has then become his own master. But with the growth of the multiple firms, on the one hand, and the co-operative societies, on the other, the chances of the one-man trader have become more and more difficult. Many of them would be far better off as managers for these multiple firms or cooperative societies. In addition to that form of competition there is the competition that he has to contend with of those who carry on businesses to implement earnings in other occupations and these so-called traders have always been the stumbling-block to any sort of reform. There were far too many shops in pre-war days, and the need for a licensing system was very obvious. Therefore I hope that the Government will prosecute their inquiries in this direction and adopt a proper licensing system, whereby all the needs of the district will be considered and licences granted only to the genuine and efficient traders.
One of the evils that arose out of the last war was the way in which ex-Service men were swindled out of their savings. There were gangsters and tricksters who cajoled them into taking shops and entering into businesses of which they had had no experience, and thousands did this, with unfortunate results. I know of the competition that we had with them over the question of early closing and the restriction of Sunday trading. These men of no experience, if they had kept open the whole of the seven days in the week, would have found it impossible to have obtained a living. Some people imagine that anyone can be a shopkeeper, but that is a big mistake. To be successful one must have efficient trading. He must understand the seasons and seasonable lines; he must study the whims of customers, which is sometimes very difficult; he has to have the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon; in fact, he has to be all things to all men and twice that to women. Another evil which resulted from the last war was the boom in the amalgamation of firms. In some cases 5s. shares jumped to 25s., and in others 1s. shares rose to 18s. 6d. Workers were sacrificed. There was compensation to directors for loss of office, but there was no compensation to workers for loss of employment. Old and faithful servants were discarded; men of ability and 438 personality who had helped to build up very prosperous businesses were thrown on to the scrap-heap.
I know that the lot of many small traders is not easy. Many are in dire straits through the loss of customers or the destruction of their shops. Wholesale firms are naturally careful in advancing credit. In many cases their money is asked for on the spot instead of there being the usual three-monthly accounts. I believe that compensation could be paid to traders for loss of business, and in this connection might I suggest one method which might meet the case? Under the Scottish Licensing Act, 1930, licensed traders contributed to compensate fellow-traders for loss of licences. This worked well and might with equal success be applied to present circumstances for loss sustained by traders through the war.
Having said something about compensation for traders, what about the position of assistants who have lost their situations in similar circumstances? If compensation is considered right for traders, surely it is equally right for workers whose livelihood has gone. The Military Service Act, I know, lays it down that there is an obligation to reengage workers on their discharge from the Forces, but where shops have been destroyed and others closed, what chance will there be for assistants to get their jobs back? I have a vivid recollection of what happened after the last war. Firms had reorganised their business and were loth to dispense with the women who had served them well during the war. Thousands of men never returned to the distributive trades. To-day the Shop Assistants' Union has over 23,000 male members serving with the Colours, and, naturally, I am concerned as to the fate of those who may be spared to return after the war. In considering the case which has been presented to the House to-day on behalf of the small trader, may I appeal to the Government not to forget the shop workers who are this moment risking life and limb on behalf of their country?
§ Mr. Doland (Tooting and Balham)
I rise to speak to-day because I have had experience of the distributive industry for over 40 years. In fact, I am at the present moment a shopkeeper, I represent, as president, the London and Suburban Traders' Federation, which comprises 439 a number of retail concerns and associations throughout London, and I am also a member of the board of management of the National Chamber of Trade, which comprises chambers throughout the Kingdom. I listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Holland-with-Boston (Lieutenant Butcher), and I agree in the main with everything he said. He went into much detail. I do not propose now to go into quite so much detail but to confine myself more to the pamphlet I have in my hands, which the the second Interim Report of the Committee which was set up by the Government. The retail traders of the country have the sympathy, I think, of every party in this House. That sympathy has been shown repeatedly, both in speeches and in Questions, and while it is very nice to receive sympathy, it does not go far enough. The President of the Board of Trade only a day or two ago stated that in his opinion retail traders were the backbone of the country. It was very nice to hear him acknowledge it, but up to now we have had only sympathy and very little practical help.
Twelve months ago—I think it was on 13th May, 1941—the then President of the Board of Trade, who is now the Minister of Production, informed the House that it was his intention to set up a Committee to advise him on this subject. I want to emphasise that date. He used these words in his statement as to the terms of reference of the Committee:To examine the present problems of the retail trade in goods other than food, having regard both to the immediate needs of the conduct of the war and to the position after the war, and to report.I draw the attention of the House especially to the words—To examine the present problems … and to reportWhen one considers what was said then and what we have received, it causes one furiously to think about the slow, cumbersome and even dilatory method of a democratic Government in setting up a Committee to deal with what was then called an immediate problem. Now there has been brought forth, after much labour by the proverbial mouse, this second Interim Report. We are still awaiting the final Report. The Minister of Production, as President of the Board of 440 Trade, also used these words when he announced the setting-up of this particular Committee:In conclusion, I would like to make it clear, first, that the appointment of this committee is intended to expedite the study of those urgent and important problems."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th May, 1941; col. 1069; Vol. 371.]The Committee are still sitting and expediting the study of those urgent problems.
§ Mrs. Tate (Frome)
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would wish to be absolutely accurate. He said the Committee sat for one year before they produced the proverbial mouse in the shape of two Interim Reports. [HON. MEMBERS: "Two mice."] I would like to point out that the second Interim Report was produced in under nine months. I would also like to remind the hon. Member that when he came to give evidence before the Committee, all he did was to listen to his own speech, and then leave the room.
§ Mr. Doland
I would point out that on that occasion I had a very urgent engagement in the House and had to leave. I informed the Chairman that I would have to leave immediately after speaking as a representative, and it was agreed that I should do so. To continue my remarks, thousands of small shopkeepers lost their life's savings in those 12 months, and they have little hope of ever regaining their livelihood in shops of their own after the war is won. As has been said by the hon. and gallant Member for Holland-with-Boston, these traders have willingly endeavoured, to the best of their ability, to cope with all the restrictions that have been imposed, such as the curtailment of supplies. I submit that they have received little assistance from the Government in the matter of safeguarding their living, and particularly their future.
The hon. and gallant Member for Holland-with-Boston emphasised the position that these traders would be in after the war. I want to speak of their present position. Cannot something be done for them? The second Interim Report, which I hope hon. Members have read, throws the whole of the onus of solving the problem on to the retail traders themselves. Three suggestions are made in that Interim Report. The first is that the shopkeepers should hang on no matter what happens; the second is that they should attempt to 441 combine with fellow traders; the third is that they should close down for the duration of the war. Those three suggestions were contained in a questionnaire that was sent round to all retail traders for the purpose of ascertaining their opinions on these matters. Dealing first with the third suggestion, that they should close down for the duration of the war, I would point out that that process has been going on since 1939, and has been accelerated particularly during the last 12 months. I feel that this suggestion may be dismissed from my arguments.
With regard to the second suggestion, that they should attempt to combine with fellow traders—which is outlined by the Committee as being their favoured suggestion—it is, in my opinion, not a practical proposition, except in very rare cases, such as the highest class of bespoke tailoring, the highest class of bespoke boot-making, and high-class dressmaking. It is suggested that the traders who are allowed to remain open should compensate those whose business is closed down. The suggestion is termed by the Committee the marriage of trades, but in the distinctive trades I have mentioned, this marriage has already taken place and been successful in peace-time, as well as in war-time. The number of cases in which this solution could be applied in these trades is so small that it is not worth considering. In these trades the solution is capable of being applied only because of the very personal character of the trades concerned and the long credit which they give. But consider the case of a typical shopkeeper in the confectionery, tobacco, and newspaper trades. In many instances, these three trades are combined in one shop under one proprietor. For argument's sake, let us say that in a certain town there are 12 of these traders combining the three trades in one, six in the main street and six in the side streets. If we assume that an order is made by the Government, as suggested in the second Interim Report, that six of the group must close, who is to decide which of the six shall close and which shall go on? It might be that four of the 12 would be of the multiple-shop type. How would a decision be made? Would the Government say that the supplies formerly given to the 12 would in future be given to the remaining six? More important still, would the Government guarantee supplies to the remaining six?
442 This raises the question of compensation, which is also referred to in the second Interim Report. The question of compensation is a very moot one. If there is to be compensation, from where is it to come? Is it to come from the traders who will remain open? Who will receive the compensation? I submit that in many cases it will not be the shopkeeper, but the landlord of the closed shop, because the shopkeeper will have on his shoulders the onus of a lease or agreement. Will the Government relieve the shopkeeper who has been compelled to close down of that obligation under his lease or agreement? The compensation will be forthcoming either on voluntary or compulsory closing down. To what extent, and for what purpose? It is suggested that the compensation will have to come from the traders who are allowed to remain open, but is it certain that those traders will make the increased profits that will enable them to pay the compensation? Will they be certain of getting the supplies that will enable them to make more profits? Surely, unless it can be proved that increased trade will come to the traders who are allowed to keep open through the closing down of the others, they cannot be expected to pay the compensation. Have they not sufficient burdens already? If the extra supplies are not forthcoming, from what source will the money come?
The problem is far more acute in the case of traders who are covered by coupon sales. The Committee admit that supplies are restricted to at least 50 per cent. of the peace-time requirements. I am in the textile business, and since coupon trading started, the turnover in all my establishments has dropped very considerably. It is not because I have not the supplies, but because sales are restricted. We are told that they are to be further restricted in the future, and there can be no one more unsympathetic regarding restrictions of sales than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is on about it every day. Is he bearing in mind the decreased margin which is now to be allowed to traders on utility clothes and utility articles? How can we be certain that sufficient extra profit will be obtained by those establishments which remain open to pay compensation to the proprietors of those shops which have been closed?
443 It has been stated in this House on many occasions that it is the intention of the Board of Trade to assist traders to reopen after the war. How is it to be arranged in regard to this question of the marriage of shops? How are the shops which are closed to be kept in condition so that they can be reopened when the proprietors return from the war? Someone has to look after them, and someone has to pay the rents while they are closed, unless legislation is forthcoming. What about the rentals of these premises which are to remain closed? Is the scheme suggested in this report to be retrospective? How can you deal with the thousands of shopkeepers who have already gone to war? Is the position to be considered from the retrospective angle in connection with the suggestions outlined in the report? I do not like to dwell too much on destructive criticism; I should like to make some constructive criticism. The first suggestion made by the committee is to hang on no matter what happens. Even among the small shopkeepers there dwells that hope which springs eternal, and they are always prepared to go down fighting.
§ Mr. Doland
I am coming to that point, which is a very important one. Is there no help which the Government can give to enable the shopkeeper to hang on? Have they even considered this side of the problem? I am quite certain that the Government could help if they chose to grasp the nettle. The first way in which the Government could help is in regard to man-power requirements. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Holland-with-Boston made much of this point, and we are most grateful to him. Cannot a more sympathetic attitude be adopted in regard to calling up shop personnel who are over 41? The Minister of Labour has issued certain Regulations, but these Orders, if I may call them Orders, of the Minister to the tribunals are decided upon in the breach rather than the observance. Are not the questions put by the tribunals too drastic? I will quote from the report. This is the question which is often put:Would the local people be deprived of an adequate supply of the commodities which 444 are essential in war-time if his shop was closed down?Do not hon. Members think that that is too drastic, and is there no endeavour to be made to help the small trader? Imagine the misery and degradation of a man over 41 who has spent years in building up a small business, when he finds on his release from war service that all has been lost. I do not wish to be unfair to the Minister, who has made a very fine speech to-day. I consider a more sympathetic outlook should be given to the question of man-power and the small shopkeepers. I will give the House an instance, which is typical of many. My hon. Friend the Member for West Birmingham (Mr. Higgs) asked a Question in this House the other day, and this is what took place. My hon. Friend asked the Minister of Labourwhether he is aware of the large number of firms that are being closed down in the Birmingham jewellery district due to the withdrawal of labour by his Department; and will he consider dealing a little less drastically with these small businesses, especially those employed mainly on orders for export?Mr. BEVIN: In accordance with arrangements agreed with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, labour is being withdrawn from firms that have not obtained nucleus status under the Concentration Scheme. This labour is urgently needed for important war employment, and "I regret I cannot agree to vary the present arrangements.Mr. HIGGS: Does the Minister consider it necessary to call men of the age of 72 and women over 60 for interviews at employment exchanges, even if labour is short?The Minister's reply caused a deal of laughter. He said:Oh, yes. The hon. Member would be surprised at the capabilities of men of 72."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th May, 1942; col. 1859; Vol. 379.]
§ Major Petherick (Penryn and Falmouth)
Is the hon. Member quite sure of his facts? Surely a man of 72 is not likely to be called up.
§ Mr. Doland
I see that my hon. Friend the Member for West Birmingham is present, and perhaps he will say whether that statement is correct?
§ Mr. Higgs (Birmingham, West)
It is perfectly correct. One man in my division aged 72 was called to the employment exchange for an interview. Women of over 60 have been regularly called for that purpose.
§ Mr. Doland
It tells the story of what is taking place with regard to the small business man who has his life savings at stake, and who will be crushed when he returns from war service. Then there is the more subtle method to close down the retailer which I believe is being used today of withholding supplies, or shall I call it unfair discrimination between the small man and the larger stores? Here lies remedy No. 2 to enable the retailer to hang on, as it is termed in the Report—fairer distribution of supplies by the Government, calculated, I suggest, pro rata on his pre-war turnover. Another point is equality of sacrifice between landlord and tenant. There is none to-day. Cases have come to my notice where landlords have been very generous indeed in endeavouring to keep a trader on his feet by reducing his rent lower than he is bound to pay by his lease or agreement, but in many cases where hardship can be proved the landlord should accept a reduced rent in proportion to the reduction in turnover or, if you please, in the profits of the business. The rating authority should also reduce the rates for the same reason. Some authorities are helping very considerably and, when cases are put before them, are reducing the rates. These proposals would enable a fair and reasonable proportion of shopkeepers to hang on, and their application would be far better than the method that is adopted to-day of scrapping the lot.
I now come to the recommendation in the interim statement by the Liberal Inquiry Committee. Compensation is another moot point, and a very sore point for the small trader. The Chancellor of the Exchequer made it quite plain, and he has reiterated it many times, that in no circumstances will he consider giving compensation to the small trader either to enable him to carry on or to start afresh after the war. The Association of British Chambers of Commerce has issued a report on industrial reconstruction, and one of the recommendations is as follows:In de-concentration schemes the small man's claim to re-establish himself should be given every encouragement in all branches of trade and industry, and some form of Government financial assistance provided in order to rehabilitate businesses financially exhausted as the result of heavy taxation and expenditure of cash resources.446 I trust that this suggestion, which refers to small businesses, will include small shopkeepers. A strong recommendation should be made specifically to add this class of trader who has suffered as much as if not more than any other class of trader. It is surely not the policy of the Government that retailers are to be squeezed out of business and no opportunity given them to start again after the war. "The Times," in a very admirable article on the small shopkeeper problem, said:All the greater responsibility of the Government for seeing that the small trader gets a fair deal.That is all that the small trader wants. He has had no fair deal up to now. He has been restricted, constricted and sent out of business, and I hope the Ministry will help him to a greater extent than it is doing at the moment. I have no confidence in the Committee that has been sitting, and I believe that ultimately there is only one channel that can help the small trader, and that is the Government. Only they can implement the means of saving the small trader, who has been acknowledged by the President of the Board of Trade as being the backbone of the country.
§ Mr. Montague (Islington, West)
I am glad the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food is in his place, because I should very much appreciate his personal attention to a point that I want to put. I was for a good many years in earlier life in the retail shopkeeping trade, and I know something about it. I feel that those who are putting up their case for the individual shopkeeper and for the small trader do not themselves appreciate the change that has taken place since the last war, if not over a longer period, in shopkeeping in general, not only small but large. In the days of my experience the shopkeeper had to be something of a skilled man to run a shop, even a small one. He had to know his business. He had to know a good deal about the physical qualities of the commodities that he was dealing with, ways of keeping them in condition and things of that kind. You get very little of that now. It is a question of an underpaid assistant turning round and taking a packet from a shelf behind him, and it is not necessary for him to know much about the commodity. The result is that there are a large number of incompetents who have failed in other walks of life and have come down to sell 447 ing something, if it is only matches in the gutter, as a last resort, the idea being that they can sell something if they cannot produce anything or carry out any other kind of professional occupation. That has led to a deterioration in the retail trade, especially from the point of view of the individual shopkeeper.
I appreciate as much as the two hon. Members who have spoken the importance of enterprise and the spirit of individuality in the distributive trades, as everywhere else, and I am sorry for their decline, but I think there is something much more fundamental to be considered, and that is why I referred to the presence of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food. This question of production and distribution, which is a war-time question to a great degree, but also a post-war question, is a twofold problem in the nature of the case. We really cannot cut the two things apart. We have to consider the question of distribution from the standpoint of production, and I would put it to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food and to the hon. and gallant Member for Holland-with-Boston (Lieutenant Butcher) that the small distributor or any other kind of distributor, with all the desire and necessity there are for the spirit of enterprise and so forth, cannot in these mechanical and scientific days simply carry on or hang on on the old lines without any consideration to how he is related to the complete economic problem of production and distribution. There must be some kind of organisation. There must be responsibility on the one side and the demand for and the receipt of rights from the Government or elsewhere upon the other. Responsibility, surely, will have to do with the requirements of the population in respect of the commodities which are produced and distributed.
In war-time particularly the problem of nutrition, of keeping the people of the country in a fit state of health, is likely to loom large. We expected it to loom much larger than it has up to the present, but we may find it a great problem before the war is over. It is, however, always a problem. We have a Nutrition Committee, and Sir John Orr has made startling statements with regard to the malnutrition of 20,000,000 of the population of this country. That problem involves the problem of distribution as well as 448 that of production. We have heard to-day that rationing, restrictions, the telescoping of small businesses and the rest of it have meant interference with private enterprise. I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food that it would not be a bad idea if he instituted some kind of committee in his Department, not a committee of the House or anything of that kind, but just a private committee, to investigate the question of distribution in relation to the nutritional necessities of the people. It should be investigated not necessarily upon the lines of private enterprise, or the maintenance of the idea that we must distribute in the old way, fighting for markets and the rest of it, but from the point of view of making at least the most elementary necessities of life a public social service.
I feel that we shall never solve the problem of the retail trade, any more than we shall solve the problem of agriculture, until we approach it from the point of view of the needs of the people and from the point of view of distributing the products of industry among the community that requires them. I know, of course, that we could not apply that principle to large numbers of things that are distributed. The question of the necessities of life is different from that of the luxuries of life. Where a commodity is required for the very existence and nutrition of the people there is just as much logic in making it a public service as there is in making roads or education public social services. The point in doing it that way is that it would guarantee a nutritional standard for the people and it would do away with destitutional poverty. We would take the conclusions of the scientists who have investigated these problems and find out what are the necessities for the maintenance of a nutritional standard. Let the nation have that standard for a start and organise not only the productive but also the distributive trades for the purpose of providing what the people require in order that they shall be physically, mentally and morally efficient citizens of the nation.
§ Major Petherick
Do I understand that the hon. Gentleman is now advocating the nationalisation of the distribution of all primary foodstuffs, such as beef and bread, and the elimination of private enterprise in the primary retail distribu 449 tive trades? Is he speaking on behalf of his party, and is that a generally accepted view?
§ Mr. Montague
The problem is one that from the point of view that I have put has not been considered by my party. Therefore, I am not speaking for them, as I am reminded that this is a Private Members' day, but I am prepared to defend what I am saying before my party at party conferences or anywhere else. With regard to the other part of the hon. and gallant Member's question, in a brief speech it is impossible to deal with the problem in detail. I was not thinking at the moment of more than experimenting in one or two commodities, for instance, milk and bread, which are very necessary commodities and most easily capable of organising in this way. I would take them by way of experiment to see whether the idea would work out economically sound. I have gone into the costs of providing these commodities for the whole community, and I find that it would be possible to supply a nutritional standard to everybody at a lower cost, looked at from a monetary standpoint, than is possible by the present system of anarchy in production and distribution. I should be willing on the proper occasion to prove that point.
I do not want to overload my argument by talking about nationalising the whole of industry or even nationalising the distributive industry. I believe in a good deal of individualism, and I do not want to interfere with the structure of the productive and distributive industries more than is necessary for this purpose. Let the question of nationalisation be decided upon its own merits. Nevertheless, I think it is necessary that the retail and productive industries should face a greater degree of scientific organisation, if necessary largely imposed on them, in future. It cannot be left entirely to pure individualism and individual enterprise at this time of day. The great problem of the future, as John Stuart Mill said in his diary, is how to combine the greatest possible good of the individualist system with the common ownership and exploitation of the means of production and distribution. That is what Mill said more than 100 years ago, and that is the problem to-day for all of us, not merely for Socialists. We have to face some degree of socialisation, because the scientific progress 450 that has gone on for the last 50 years has been brought to such a focus under war conditions. I commend these ideas to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, not expecting him to accept them offhand, but as a basis for useful inquiry by his Department.
§ Mr. Ammon (Camberwell, North)
I do not propose to follow my hon. Friend the Member for West Islington (Mr. Montague) in his interesting dissertation on distribution in a reorganised society. What we are concerned with to-day are the discomforts and hardships which have been created under the conditions described by the hon. and gallant Member for Holland-with-Boston (Lieutenant Butcher), and I congratulate him upon bringing forward a subject which is of such far-reaching importance to ordinary people. There is apprehension in industry that when this war ends we may find that the large interests are firmly entrenched and all the smaller ones have been wiped out. That is one fear underlying this problem of distribution. The large multiple firms may swallow up the smaller traders, not only to their disadvantage but to the inconvenience of the great mass of the public. One must admit that in time of war there is bound to be greater concentration in industries engaged in distribution, but care must be taken, both from the point of view of maintaining morale and safeguarding the interests of the people concerned, to cause as little disturbance as possible, and we must have regard, also, to the interests of those who are called from their ordinary vocation to carry on war-time industry.
The problem of the elimination of the small shopkeeper is greatly accentuated by the increased call upon women to go into industry. The call-up of women has made a tremendous difference, particularly in constituencies like my own, where a great part of the population are resident working-class people living well away from the large shops. They generally buy in small quantities, and it is a great convenience for them to be able to pop round to the small shops to get their necessities. The fact that so many women are working in factories during ordinary shopping hours increases the difficulties. Another feature of the situation is that many tradespeople are now dealing in goods which they formerly did not handle. 451 For example, the milkmen and the baker now bring round to the door certain commodities which they did not formerly distribute, and that has had a serious effect upon shopkeepers. Extraordinary problems are arising in connection with the distribution of goods. An hon. Friend of mine was waited upon recently by a deputation of small shopkeepers who complained of loss of trade owing to having been deprived of a certain amount of help in their shops and owing to the petrol restrictions. They were mostly bakers. One result of what has happened is that the big wholesale bakery firms are now delivering over a very wide area—going as far away as Dagenham to Edgware. We know the Scriptural phrase: "As far as the East is from the West." Here the two are certainly being brought into touch with each other, at the cost of a greater consumption of petrol and many other things about which we are enjoined to be careful. And it is all playing into the hands of those with the largest amount of capital, the largest organisations, and killing the industry of the shopkeepers who are situated at the doors of the people. We are concerned to see that the shopkeeper with a small number of registered customers shall be kept within the rationing system, and I hope that the Minister will keep the minimum number of registered customers which a trader must have as low as possible. I know that occasionally abuses have crept in, and that some very small shopkeepers have tried to keep on for the sake of getting supplies for their own families, but that is a risk which can be guarded against. It serves the convenience of working-class people to keep these small shops in existence.
There is a side of this problem which is affected by the calling-up of labour. I will give two instances. One concerns an ex-soldier, over 40 years of age, a widower with a family of six, the eldest 16 years of age and the youngest under 3. He has been running an eating-house in a busy part of south-east London where a good deal of heavy industry is carried on. He has tried to get a woman to undertake the work while he is away. One or two have come, but they have given up the job after a fortnight as being far too heavy. This eating-house supplies as many as 80 midday meals a day to industrial workers. That man has been called up for service, 452 and though he has appealed to the Hardship Tribunal his appeal has been turned down. He is over 40, he has six young children, and if he goes it means that his business will go to rack and ruin, and, what is more, that a canteen may have to be opened there to meet the needs of the people for whom he has been catering. It is utterly ridiculous. I say that the national interest will suffer. The man is doing far better service at home than he will do if called up—a man of his age, and worried and harassed as he is bound to be by thinking of what is happening to his family and his business. That case is now before the Minister of Labour.
The other case concerns a young woman of 36. She lives with her father, who is a widower and about 76 years of age. To increase his income, which is solely the old age pension, he does a little jobbing gardening. This daughter has looked after her father, and also assisted as a machinist, part-time, in a small shop close by, at the same time giving a little domestic help there. It is a shop kept by two elderly women who make children's underclothing. This young woman has been called up for service. There has been an appeal, but it has been turned down, and I have submitted the case to the Minister. Here is a case where two homes will be wrecked. The old man will be left to look after himself and will be unable to do the little work he does at present, and the small business in which she helped will be crippled, because one of the two women is a permanent invalid and cannot carry on. Those are some of what I call the stupidities operating in the application of this matter. I hope that out of this discussion will come closer consideration by the Departments concerned and that definite instructions and advice will be issued to the officials at the employment exchanges and the hardship tribunals. Not the least among the complaints that we receive is of the highhanded manner of the people in the employment exchanges themselves, on the ground that they act as though they were clothed "in a little brief authority" and intended to exercise it and to show it. I hope that the Minister will issue instructions on this matter also.
There is one other point that I wish to raise. Recently, in Bedford I think it was, a man ran a baker's shop. His two assistants have been called up, and his petrol allowance has been withdrawn. He 453 is unable to carry on his business and reach the majority of his customers. Another trader has come in from Luton, which is a good many miles away, using petrol and labour, to take away this man's livelihood. The first man is closing down his business. This situation casts a greater burden on the nation at the present time than need be, because people an; deprived of services for which there is a definite use. An hon. Member opposite referred to a suggestion said to have been made that traders should close down for the duration of the war and to the burden borne by traders operating under short leases. If it was possible for a Regulation to be made with regard to rent restriction, releasing people from their rates during the period when their properties are empty, surely a Defence Regulation might be made to relieve traders of the burden of such leases, where such traders are placed in a difficult position. This suggestion might help to mitigate their hardships.
That is all I intend to say. Those are practical points based upon my own experience and brought to me by many constituents. They can be multiplied from every constituency, and they are an indication that we shall not help the national effort if we are not as careful as we can be to maintain people who are in relatively small businesses and who undoubtedly do a great national service in helping to maintain morale among the people who are engaged in other branches of our national effort.
§ Mrs. Tate (Frome)
I did not intend to take part in this Debate, because I am the only Member of the House serving upon the Retail Trade Committee. As our third Interim Report has not been published, I thought that it would be grossly improper for me to take part in the Debate. However, there have been allusions by the hon. Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. Doland) to the second Interim Report, which he has so grossly misrepresented that I feel I have a duty to my colleagues on the Committee to make this House aware of the facts. The hon. Member said that the second Interim Report had made three suggestions as to what the small trader should do. One has only to turn to the Report to see that that is exactly contrary to the facts.
§ Mr. Doland
On a point of Order. The hon. Lady's misrepresentation of my 454 speech gives it absolutely and entirely wrong. May I read a passage—
§ Mrs. Tate
Might I be allowed to finish my speech? As I have not yet said in what way the hon. Member has misrepresented the Report, it is most extraordinary that his psychic power enables him to retort before the allegation has been made. Perhaps he would not mind just waiting a moment. He said that the Report had made suggestions about what the small trader might do. I repeat that the second Interim Report was published solely to give traders as complete a picture as possible of the conditions facing the retail trade in the country at the present time. These conditions were felt to be so serious that it was considered advisable to put them in all their grim-ness before retail traders. The Report made no suggestion on those points. What the Report actually said was:Hitherto we feel that there has been inadequate realisation of the impending gravity of the situation, and our report is accordingly-directed to an assessment of the facts. These facts speak for themselves; thereafter, the initiation of remedies is a matter for consultation. In the third interim report"—which is shortly to be published, and which the hon. Member's psychic power so fortunately seemed to make him able to give to the House—
§ Mr. Doland
On a point of Order. I suggest that the hon. Lady should explain to the House how I have misrepresented the Report.
§ Mrs. Tate
I will do so, Mr. Speaker, if the hon. Member will give me an opportunity. To continue:the facts show that it may be profitable to consider alternative courses at present open to the small shopkeeper, and to clear the ground for consultation by focusing attention upon what we believe to be the salient issues. The three courses which appear to us to be at prevent available"—not suggestions as to what the trader should do but courses which, in the present lamentable situation, are available—are: (1): as he has not infrequently put it himself, he can decide to hang on, no matter what happens; (2): he can try to arrange a temporary working agreement with one or more fellow retailers, or, (3): he can close down either for the duration or permanently.We have not said that those are the only alternatives at present open to the trader. The object of the Committee was to enable other recommendations to be made. For the hon. Member for Balham and Tooting 455 to say that those were suggestions as to what the retailer should do by way of stabilising his position was a gross misrepresentation of the Report. The hon. Member said he hoped the whole House had read the Report. Of course, the House has not. If the hon. Member has, his memory is exceedingly bad. Naturally, I sympathise with lack of memory as with any other disability, but I feel there is no excuse for allowing lack of memory to influence hon. Members by representing the Report to the House when hon. Members have it before them and they have only to read it.
§ Mr. Spens (Ashford)
When the previous references were made to the position of the private trader, I remember that there was the same vehemence as has been used to-day against the machinations of chain stores and other multiple shops. At that time the theme of the attack was the line taken by the hon. Member this afternoon, that when chain stores or multiple shops invade country towns, the ruin of the private trader follows as the night follows the day. The result of that Debate for both of us was that we were called upon to make all sorts of investigations, which we did, and so far from finding that statement to be strictly and accurately true, we were both convinced that many limitations had to be put upon it. In fact, thanks to the advent of large chain stores, many country towns, where there were perhaps a dozen small traders with a very limited 456 custom, became popular local shopping centres; not only was an immense amount of additional custom brought to the towns, but that custom in course of time was very largely shared by the private traders as well as by the newcomers. Of course, on occasions, the trade of some of the private traders suffered for the time being, but on the whole I do not think that it is an accurate statement to say that in peace-time—I am coming to war conditions in a moment—the private trader cannot live against the chain store or the multiple shop.
§ Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)
May I interrupt my hon. and learned Friend to ask where the extra trade came from to bless not only the new multiple shop but the private trader as well, and who was doing that trade before?
§ Mr. Spens
The answer is that people living in the country did not go into that country town to shop until it became a shopping centre, but did their shopping in London, or other big towns, farther away. They now do their shopping in the country town with the assistance of the multiple shops. I am giving an example from my own experience.
§ Mr. Spens
No, they did not shop in the village at all. Before I turn to war conditions, I would like to say one other thing, and it is that we owe a very great debt of gratitude to some of the big stores for what they did following the blitzes on various towns. Although I am a strong champion of the private trader, I do not think that it is right that they should be condemned in this House in war-time without someone expressing gratitude for the way in which, when towns had been descended upon by the enemy and all local shops had been destroyed, they came to the rescue and provided not only food but all the other multifarious articles which householders need if suddenly they have to set themselves up in new homes. In our ports it has been universally acknowledged that assistance has been given, and given generously, by these stores.
Now I want to come to what seem to me to be the real problems we have to face in war-time. The first problem which I want my right hon. and hon. Friends 457 in front of me to think out is that of maximum prices. The hon. and gallant Member for Holland with Boston (Lieutenant Butcher) gave as an instance, with some heat, a case where a multiple shop had been selling below the maximum price, and said that it was being done for personal reasons, for advertising, to attract new registrations, and so forth. That may have influenced them—I do not know—but there is no doubt whatever that a maximum price fixed at a figure which enables individual and small traders to make two ends meet, if treated as a standard price as it is in nine cases out of ten, enables the larger traders to make very large profits indeed out of what they sell. Maximum prices, therefore, are a matter which need a good deal of consideration in that connection. If a maximum price is fixed which enables only the big trader, be it a multiple store or anything else, to make the two ends meet and make a small profit, it is too low for the small individual trader. If the maximum price is fixed for the small individual trader, you are putting money into the pockets of the big multiple stores, if they treat the maximum price as the standard price. If they sell under the maximum price, as they can do perfectly properly and have clone on a number of occasions, they are open to the charge, which has been made in the House today, that they are undercutting the individual trader and behaving very improperly. It is a problem which requires still more thinking out; what the solution is it is extremely difficult to see, but I warn the House that maximum prices are matters which require consideration.
I now turn to the next point. One of the real difficulties of the small trader, and certainly the one which is commonest in the South-East part of England, in the evacuated area mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Holland with Boston, is this: The small village shopkeeper used to be served, in pre-war days, as a rule by a comparatively small individual wholesaler. The wholesaler had his round of a large number of village stores, and had a different round almost every day of the week. He would bring to the village stores the supplies which the village storekeeper commonly kept. Many of those wholesalers were comparatively young men, and they have nearly all been called up. The bigger wholesalers who have more or 458 less succeeded them, with or without a little Government or Departmental direction, in the supplying of these small village shops quite frankly do not find it worth while under present conditions to supply those shops continuously. The village storekeeper is getting into difficulties, and is in many cases closing down, very largely because of that flaw in the wholesale distribution to him. That is a problem in connection with certain commodities which I put up to the various Departments represented on the Front Bench to-day.
§ This question of distribution to the country villages is worth going into. The compulsorily rationed foods find their way there quite all right, but anything beyond them has, in a great number of cases, ceased to find its way to those shops. Of course, if the shops close down, then there is a temptation for some store or other—as a rule not one of the chain stores, but much more frequently the nearest cooperative society—to open up in the village and start to supply it. I feel that it is a matter which requires looking into with sympathy on the part of the Departments.
§ Now let me raise one last point, not about the shopkeeper, but about the smaller individual in the producing trade, the manufacturing trades in particular. There is, of course, a tendency, there must be the tendency in war, to get your business concentrated in the biggest units. You cannot avoid it. It is quicker and more convenient in every way, and if the job is to produce, and produce quickly, something necessary, it is inevitable that that should be so. On the other hand, there is a feeling that when that is going on the smaller competitor always seems to be the one who has to go out of existence under every concentration scheme. I must be very careful. I see my hon. Friend turns round and frowns at me. I do not say it is a fact. What I said was there there is a general feeling that the small unit cannot stick up for itself as can the big combines and the big units, and I think it is frightfully important that in every concentration, in every case where factories have to be requisitioned for one Department or another, it should be perfectly clear that the bigger concerns have to suffer in proper proportion to the smaller individual concerns and that it must not become common thought or common feeling throughout the country 459 as I am afraid to some extent it is at the present time, that it is always the small individualist who goes under at the expense of the bigger combines. It is the duty of this House and my hon. Friend who, I know, wishes to do his best, to see that in all these schemes the individualist is protected as much as possible.
Mr. De la Bère (Evesham)
I listened with great attention to the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens). With part of it I agreed; with part of it I did not agree. There is just one point that I want to make on the subject of a guarantee of supplies for the small trader. Undoubtedly this is one of the greatest difficulties which the small trader has to face to-day. The wholesaler in these times of difficult transport and shortage of man-power naturally prefers to deliver to the big chain stores because it is less trouble; he can get rid of the goods in bulk, and it does not involve a great deal of labour. It is only natural that he should do so. But it is as a result of that that the small trader has no goods to sell, and if he cannot sell, he is faced with ruin. This is a matter in which the Government could quite easily assist the little trader, by seeing that a guaranteed supply is available for each individual small trader throughout the country. I hope that those members of the Government who are present will be kind enough to take some notice of what I am saying, because for 12 months, and longer than that, I have studied this matter and gone into it, so far as one can, in very great detail. It is a very complicated and difficult question, and I well appreciate the difficulties of the Government.
I do not wish to say anything unkind, but I feel I must draw attention to the fact that the present Minister of Supply, as President of the Board of Trade did everything possible to assist the small trader. It was really very refreshing. He never spared himself. He took matters into consideration by actually going and investigating himself. I wish to pay him a warm tribute. My right hon. Friend who is now the Minister of Production, when at the Board of Trade, did not, I think, quite realise the problem. I hope that as he is in an important post to-day he will make amends for his past omissions and do what he can to 460 put things right. When at the Board of Trade he did not pay that attention to this important subject which it warrants. The small trader, as has been so often said, is the backbone of the country. The country cannot get on without him. I have a great quarrel against a certain school of thought which keeps on saying, "Oh yes, but we must win the war first." If there is an infuriating parrot cry, it is that. Surely we can see that schemes are ready during the war for protecting these people. If we do not, there will be nothing but chaos, ruin and misery after the war. Whether the reason for that parrot cry is bone laziness or propaganda, it is not in the national interest to cry it, and I hope we shall have no more of that. Let us try to win the war and at the same time preserve the small trader and home life, family life.
I do not intend to make a long speech. I never do make a long speech, but I have always upheld the cause of the little man and the little woman and the small trader. I once had a delightful tie made with the "Little Man" of Strube of the "Daily Express" on it. Unfortunately, the war came, and I never had the opportunity of displaying this "Little Man" in the House of Commons. After the war is over the House will, I hope, have the opportunity of seeing this "Little Man" in full force emblazoned on my tie. It may sound foolish, but it is very near to my heart. Although I may sound to be speaking with levity, the House will not misunderstand me. I speak from the heart. Anything I can do for the little man or the little woman of this country is a pleasure to do. I do not mind how much trouble or time I spend. I urge the Government to do everything possible. It is no good sitting down waiting for various reports. I do not wish to comment on the Committee which has just done such valuable work, but I urge that the Government should do everything in their power to assist the small trader. By doing so, they will preserve that real family life and tradition which we all cherish in this country.
§ Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)
I should like to enlarge upon a point made by the hon. and learned Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens) in relation to the concentration of industry, which first sounded the alarm to the private trader. That 461 alarm was given in the early part of last year. There is not the slightest doubt that the concentration of industry meant that a limited quantity of goods would be available for the small trader. I believe the Government's policy at that time—they have given it up since—was to telescope the small businesses of this country and reduce the number of retail shops. That aroused such alarm that the executive council of the British Chambers of Commerce passed a resolution and that, with many other resolutions passed by Chambers of Commerce throughout the country, gained the sympathy of the public. The council's resolution said that in their view the smaller businesses, whether they were manufacturers or retailers, were vital in the economic structure of the country and that anything tending to the squeezing-out of the small or even medium-sized concerns after the war would be a national disaster. That was confirmed by many correspondents in newspapers. Professor Bowley writing in "The Times" said:A sound policy of concentrating non-essential industry should not be allowed to degenerate into an attack on small enterprise.The country was roused and became sympathetic towards the small trader and began to take much interest in what the small trader did for the community. If the House will have patience for a few moments I will try to show what a large part the small trader takes in the retail trade of this country. According to the Distributive Trades Committee in 1935 there were, in this country, 1,171 cooperative societies. There were 91 chain stores. The co-operative societies in 1935 did 9 per cent. of the retail trade, the chain stores did 21 per cent. of the retail trade, but the small trader did 70 per cent. of the retail trade of this country in that year. I make that point to show how important the small trader is. Let me translate that into terms of shops. The co-operative societies have approximately 12,000 shops, the chain stores 27,500 shops, and the retail traders 960,500 shops. Let us assume that the retail trader has at least two people dependent upon him; at that rate about 3,000,000 people are engaged in, or dependent on, retail trade. We must hesitate before we injure these people, who have played such a large part in our social history. So, very quickly, the Government changed its tune in regard to the telescoping 462 of small businesses. The late Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, in this House, went so far as to say:Whilst logically, and merely on economic grounds, a case can be made out for the elimination of the small distributor, such a policy has no attraction for me on social grounds.He proceeded to say that hundreds of thousands of people who were of social value to the community were dependent on this way of livelihood, and that, even at the risk of a certain amount of economic loss to the community, it was worth while keeping that section in being for the social advantage to be gained in other directions. The late President of the Board of Trade, now Minister of Production, when he brought in the Bill for the Concentration of Industry, also made certain remarks which showed that he, too, was expressing Government sympathy with the small trader. He said about the Government's telescoping policy that the relative balance between the share of trade which was now enjoyed by the multiple stores and co-operative societies and that enjoyed by the small traders should not be disturbed. It was said that he should take the course of diverting trade from the multiple stores to the small traders. He replied, "I must not do that." But he said, in regard to statements that had been made about the creation of monopolies, that if that were true he would regard it as a very serious criticism In actual practice, the Government adopted a policy which was altogether the reverse.
I will give one or two instances. One very important example is the call-up under the National Service Bill. Although the Government paid lip-service in these ways to the retail trader, they managed to destroy a large proportion of the small traders of this country. We all know that the small trader has perhaps spent a lifetime, and his resources, in his small town, building up a business. Perhaps his family has helped him. He is suddenly called up for military service. Admittedly, he could claim exemption on grounds of hardship; he often had his call-up deferred for six months, and then for another six months. But after that he had to close his shop unless he could get somebody to help him; and we all know how hard it is now to get such help, apart from the fact that, probably, the person engaged will not understand the conditions of the 463 business and cannot be relied upon to take so much interest as the small trader himself does in the customers. The Minister of Labour, in December, 1941, attempted to ameliorate this position. He said that they could appear again before the hardships tribunal, and get some relief. But the damage has been done. Hundreds, yes, thousands of these people have closed their shops.
The hon. Member for North Camber-well (Mr. Ammon) referred to a case in Camberwell. I know of a very similar case in London. A small trader, aged 41, with two or three children, was called up for the National Fire Service. He had to put up his shutters, and he now spends three-quarters of his time playing billiards, waiting for the blitz, and worrying himself to a shadow. He has now been able to obtain, temporarily, some indifferent help. Here is the case of a butcher in my own constituency. It is a very tragic case. He has had a serious operation. He has two sons, one of whom was called away on military service. He did not grumble about that. He himself was not able to work, but he had two or three employees. They were called away on military service. He had one son left, who carried the business on his shoulders. That son is being called up for the Army on this very day. That means that the shop will have to close. The man has 1,200 customers. The Ministry of Food concurred, I believe, in the deferment of the second son's call-up to June last year, and then for a further period to November; but when a further application was made, the letter received from the Ministry of National Service said:The Minister of Food was consulted, and fully concurred with the decision that no further deferment should be granted.So it seems the Minister of Food also believes that the small trader is not worth conserving. That is the only inference I can make from this letter.
§ Dr. Thomas
No reason whatever was given in this letter. All that was said was that on this occasion they concurred with the decision of the man-power board. In other ways, the actions of the Government rather than their implied policy, are injuring the small trader. We have the establishment of British Restaurants 464 throughout the country. That has made it extremely difficult for the small trader. British Restaurants are being increased in number almost every week. They have opportunities for buying in the cheapest market at discounts which the small trader cannot allow. There is the N.A.A.F.I. I do not want to go into that, but the Board of Trade has made regulations in regard to N.A.A.F.I., and it thinks that by its regulations it has done the small trader a great deal of good. The Board of Trade said:The Board of Trade arrangement for N.A.A.F.I. has the effect of restricting the purchases of this organisation to the level of their sales for the period October-December, 1940, increased in proportion to the increase of the Fighting Services since that date, but reduced in proportion to the current sales quota.It must be clear that the clientele of N.A.A.F.I. is increasing every day, and that, because of the call-up, the customers of the small trader must decrease. Here is another way in which the small trader has been injured. The Ministry of Food has set up what might be described as a black market in fishing. On the North-East coast the Air Minister has actually chartered vessels for fishing purposes and they supply fish direct to the officers' messes. The small trader, consequently, has not the same quantity of fish, nor is he enabled to make the small profit that he used to make, now that the Ministry of Food has come into the business itself. The basic dates of the Location of Business Order, 1st December, 1940, and 23rd October, 1941, had a most disastrous effect on the chemist. During that period, in spite of the promise of the patent medicine trade that it would not take advantage of the situation, and in spite of the fact that there was a paper and a cardboard shortage, it brought out special articles ready to flood the chain stores of the country on the repeal of the Patent Medicine Duties on 2nd September, 1941. One branch in Central London, within a day or two of 2nd September, had about 60 preparations being sold by unqualified assistants, some on the lines of the kind of thing which we had fought to prevent being sold in this reckless fashion. That is what happened. They ask simply that the Location of Business Order should be made retrospective, thereby eliminating this unfair competition. I could go on for a considerable time in regard to the in- 465 justices which have occurred and the policy of the Government which is doing so much harm to the small trader, in spite of the lip service it has paid.
The Government ought to bear in mind one or two propositions. Perhaps I may read them instead of giving them in my own words, as it is so much easier. Before legislation for the further direction of the distributive trade is produced, members of the trade should have the opportunity of examining and criticising the proposals concerned by their national and local trade organisations. A scheme of registration and licensing of shops should be introduced forthwith, so that no new distributive unit shall come into being, except with official sanction, through the local chamber of commerce or other appropriate local trade association. A national contribution scheme, which I think is so important, should be introduced immediately whereby out of periodic contributions made by all shops throughout the country, grants should be made to any trader who, following the introduction of the registration scheme, is, as a result of war, put out of business. In addition to that, an undertaking should be given that the relative balance of trade, now being enjoyed by the multiple stores and the co-operative societies and that which is being enjoyed by the private trader should not be disturbed. Those are very reasonable propositions. The National Service Act, too, should be administered with far greater sympathy. The hardship of the National Service Act is that it is falling so heavily and harshly on the small trader, whereas the multiple shops can get away with it every time. They still find assistants to keep their doors open and they filch the customers of the small trader while he is away fighting for his country.
I am not one of those who pretend to worship the State. I have always regarded the State as the servant of man, and not as his master. The State was originally founded to protect those thrown together by nature from the foreign foe and from one another. That these functions should be enlarged with the evolution of modern society is right and proper, but that the State should have supreme power over the life of the individual is contrary to Divine guidance and subversive of human happiness. I cannot subscribe to such a doctrine. It is interesting to recall that the 466 rising price of wheat during the Peninsular war made it more profitable to rent a large than own a small farm: the result was the disappearance of the remnants of the English yeomanry. So, too, the Government's policy in this war, if continued, will destroy the small retailer who has rendered such useful service to the community in the past. It is better to lose economically than to be destroyed spiritually. There are those in our midst, even in His Majesty's Government, who are already, in the name of reconstruction and under the pretence of avoiding chaos when peace comes, preparing the way for the continuation of the control by red tape which would eventually strangle the community. I trust that I may never live to see it. Let the right hon Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade—I wish he had been here to-day—remember the words of Burke at a time when the menace was but in its infancy. [Interruption.] I do not think the hon. Member should interrupt Burke. He said:The great inlet by which a colour for oppression has entered into the world is by one man's pretending to determine concerning the happiness of another.Let the right hon. Gentleman beware that he is not the one man pretending to determine concerning the happiness of another, by acting in such a way that for all time he destroys the small trader.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Major Lloyd George)
Did I understand the hon. Gentleman to say that he was informed that British Restaurants were allowed to purchase commodities at terms more favourable than their competitors?
§ Dr. Thomas
I am informed that they can buy at such a low price that the small trader cannot possibly offer his goods at such a low rate.
Major Lloyd George
That is not my information and I shall be very grateful if the hon. Gentleman will give some concrete examples.
§ Dr. Thomas
That is a general principle. I have not brought specific examples with me, but I have no doubt I could obtain them.
§ Major Petherick (Penryn and Falmouth)
I was profoundly interested, as no doubt was the rest of the House, with the quotation of the hon. Member from 467 that great statesman Mr. Edmund Burke, but I feel that it was not wholly apposite to the present discussion. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said, but there was one part of his speech which hardly seemed to stand. He was deploring, as we all do, the rather rapid disappearance of the small retail trader and distributor and was putting forward two or three measures to help that disappearance to take place. One was that the Associated Chambers of Commerce were to issue licences before any new trader could start at all. That means that he envisages a large increase in the number of retail traders rather than a decrease, which most of us deplore.
§ Dr. Russell Thomas
It is only during the period of the war. Any chain store wishing to start a new business during the war period should have a licence. I suggest it merely as a means of protecting the small trader during the war.
§ Major Petherick
I am sorry if I misunderstood my hon. Friend. I do not think anybody would start a new shop in war-time unless he was entirely deranged. There is one point I would like to mention, which was put up by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens). I remember that before the war he used to join in the whoops of joy on behalf of small traders against the multiple and chain shops. I think it is possible to exaggerate on both sides. We can say that chain stores fulfil a quite useful function, but I think he was going a little bit too far when he suggested that the advent of chain stores in the country was bound to help the rest of the tradesmen because it attracted crowds into the town, so that everyone made more money and was happy. If that were true, it should be shown that there was no disappearance of the small man at all, but I looked up to-day a speech which I made in 1937 in the House during the course of an abortive Bill brought forward by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Captain Balfour). Everybody knows that the small trader has been disappearing for the last 40 years. I quoted during the course of that speech a letter which I received from a man in Coventry, which showed what had been happening during the last 50 years in that city. If I may, I would like to read that letter again. It said: 468Within approximately a quarter of a mile of the business centre of the town I find that in 1880 there were 323 independent shopkeepers in the area. Since that date 292 have died or closed, leaving only 31 independent traders in that area at the date of my investigation. In other words, in 1880 there were 100 per cent. independents; in 1881, when the first branch of a chain store opened, there were 99 per cent. independents, and in 1933 only 26 independents out of 300.That shows what has been happening in one city, and I think all of us remember that a similar thing has been going on in our local towns. Personally, I look upon it as bad and dangerous. I fully agree that many chain stores are well managed, but sometimes they are doing a considerable amount of harm. We have heard not only about retail distributors but also about the small and middle-sized manufacturers and producers. They, also, have been passing through an extremely difficult time, both before and since the war broke out, and I think the Government ought to do everything they possibly can to prevent their being forced out of business. They have died very hard. Oddly enough, during the slump of 1929–32, when one would have thought that the strong and powerful financial organisations would have survived, it was the smaller firms, employing under 500 people, which stood the strain best. That we can prove by figures.
Before the war the small producer and retailer-distributor found conditions difficult enough. It was not only the chain and multiple shops they had to compete with but conditions in general—heavy taxation and all too often periods of bad trade. Since the start of the war the position of the distributor and producer has become infinitely worse. He is extremely short of staff in practically every case. That is inevitable, because men and women have been called up for the Armed Forces or some other form of Government service, and he has had a hard struggle, with the few who have remained, in paying wages, because he has often found that Government or municipally-controlled enterprises of various kinds are offering wages to those who are in the market which he cannot possibly afford to pay. Not only is he struggling through loss of staff, but he cannot get anyone to replace them. Then, of course, he has to spend an immense amount of time in filling in forms, on coupons and on every 469 kind of paper work, which the war has so much increased. He is crushed down by the enormous weight of taxation, which, of course, he shares in common with the rest of the community, and another difficulty facing him is that Government contracts rarely go to the small producer or manufacturer.
I know that members of the Front Bench, with the best intentions in the world, say they are doing their best to give the small man a "do," but time and time again I have been written to by my constituents, both before the war when rearmament was beginning, and since, who say that local work is nearly always given to some large and favoured firm. That is not to say that there is any hanky panky or naughtiness on the part of Government Departments; it is simply that, being a large firm, it can do much more work and, consequently, is easier to deal with. But none the less it is extremely hard on, say, a small local builder to see a contract given to a firm which may send down representatives and workmen from another part of the country. In conclusion, I would like to ask the Government to do all they can to help small local firms. So far as after the war is concerned, I think that in the main, if it is possible to come back to pre-war conditions, the small trader would welcome it rather than the present position. Negative advantages may be obtained from future Governments rather than positive disadvantages. So, I hope the Government will make a declaration, in stronger language than they have done in the past, to the effect that it is not part of their policy to push out of business or touch small traders, whether retail or wholesale, that they look upon them as part of the backbone of the country and that they will do everything they possibly can to assist them.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Captain Waterhouse)
I think it would be to the satisfaction of the House if I started by giving the assurance that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. Petherick) asked for in the last sentence of his speech. I can assure the House that it is not part of the Government's policy to crush or hamper the activities of the private trader. Rather is it our definite endeavour to try and find ways in which we can help him to meet the 470 serious problems with which we know he is faced.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Penryn and Falmouth put the matter in, good perspective when he referred to this as an old tendency and not an entirely new problem. One is rather apt to feel that when a manifestation becomes very acute, it is something completely new which has arisen. This tendency, regrettable as some of us think it is, less regrettable as others think it is, is not a new tendency, but there is not the smallest doubt that the tendency has been tremendously accelerated by the war. It is in some ways unfortunate that this Debate, interesting as it has been, had to take place at this juncture, for we are, as the House is aware, awaiting the third report of the Committee on Retail Trade. That Committee has sat for some 12 months. I rather resent the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. Doland) about the slow and dilatory methods which were employed by the Committee. These ladies and gentlemen have devoted many hours of their time freely and willingly to investigating this problem fully. I think it is very unfair that an hon. Member, especially one who has, with regard to the retail trade, the position of the hon. Member for Balham and Tooting, should speak as he did about the activities of the Committee.
It is always easy to tear to pieces other people's suggestions. My hon. Friend dealt extremely hardly with the second interim report of the Committee. Three tentative suggestions were made in that report, but I want to emphasise that the second interim report was a fact-finding report and not a recommending report. It did not set itself out to recommend solutions at that stage. It set out the facts as they had been disclosed to the Committee, and the Committee said that they were proceeding to the next stage, which was an endeavour to enunciate some useful lines of action for the benefit of the trade. The hon. Member, with all his knowledge, was not very helpful. As far as I could understand him, he had no direct suggestion to make as to the lines along which we should move, other than Government assistance. Of course, if one looks on the Exchequer as a bottomless distributor of largesse into which any section of the community can dip their hands, we would have no prob 471 lems, and nobody would have greater pleasure than my right hon. Friend and myself in dispensing such sums to this and to other sections of the community who have been most hardly hit by the war.
§ Captain Waterhouse
I will come to them later. But the Prime Minister laid down very clearly some time ago to what extent the Government were prepared to help. I have already quoted the words once to-day, and I make no apology for quoting them again. The Prime Minister said:Unless public opinion and the judgment of the House were prepared to separate damage resulting from the fire of the enemy from all those other forms of war loss, and unless the House was prepared to draw the distinction very sharply between war damage by bomb and shell and other forms of loss which are incurred, we could not attempt to deal with this matter"—the question of war damage—otherwise, we should be opening up a field to which there would be no bounds."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th September, 1940, cols. 42–3, Vol. 365.]As far as I know, the Government's view has not altered at all in that direction. We cannot look to direct Government assistance, though obviously the House can properly look to Government Kelp in other ways than financial help. My hon. Friend the Member for Balham and Tooting said that he made suggestions. Like other hon. Members, he referred to a fairer distribution of supplies, but he said "by the Government." I was not quite clear what he meant by referring to a fairer distribution of supplies by the Government. Does he really suggest that the Government should become the universal wholesaler, that they should take all the supplies from the manufacturers? It is an interesting suggestion for an hon. Member on this side of the House to make, but I do not think it is one which my hon. Friend, with his knowledge, thinks we could possibly adopt. I feel very strongly that we have in this country experienced traders in many directions, in the retail trade, the wholesale trade, and the manufacturing trade; and while, unfortunately, we have to interfere with them all too much, from my point of view I should be very sorry 472 to interefere with them one whit more than is absolutely necessary.
§ Captain Waterhouse
I hope it will be possible, as it has been, to find other means of dealing with this problem. For example, clothing coupons helped materially. Up till then, there was nothing to prevent any wholesaler or manufacturer making sales all to the larger firms, or to the multiple shops, or to the co-ops. Since then, the coupon system has directed the supplies to those shops and to those parts of the country from which the demand has come, and to that extent the coupon system has had a good effect on this problem. But it so happened that, unfortunately, towards the end of last winter we were short of supplies in a good many directions, and shopkeepers went in vain to their wholesalers, proffered their coupons, and were told that there were no supplies because the stuff was not available. My right hon. Friend, with my humble assistance, is doing his best to try and get a better state of production in these vital categories so that in future the shopkeeper, the retailer, will not go in vain to his wholesaler and that supplies will flow to where the demand is greatest.
If I may say so, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Holland-with-Boston (Lieutenant Butcher), who opened the Debate, put the matter extremely fairly, extremely temperately, and yet strongly. He referred to a large and rather unexpected measure of prosperity in the retail trade. I think that is quite true. I think many of us thought that their crisis would come sooner than it has come. The facts which are published from time to time in the "Board of Trade Journal" disclose an interesting state of affairs. If the index value for retail sales for 1937 is taken as 100 by value, for 1939 it was 102; for 1940, 107; and for 1941, 99. This shows that the decrease in the values of retail sales has been very small indeed—much smaller than I think many hon. Members would have thought. In volume, the sales are probably down by something like 40 per cent. My hon. and gallant Friend referred to the fact that the shelves are getting emptier. That is, of course, very true, and it is a very relevant factor to-day, but the shelves are still bearing 473 a very comfortable quantity of commodities. [Interruption.] The hon. Member says that he would like to see them. If he goes into most shops, he will find that, with the exception of a few lines, this country is very remarkably supplied, considering that we have been at war for some 33 or 34 months. In the figures from which I have quoted the stocks are given, too, and in January of this year, in values—I may say for emphasis that January is not a very good month to take, because there were this year no annual sales, which, of course, deplete the stock, and I am told that retailers placed their orders rather earlier than usual—in January, in values, there was 51 per cent. more stock in the retail shops than in the same month three years ago. If one takes the figure for March, which, I think, is a fair one—
§ Major Lyons (Leicester, East)
When my hon. and gallant Friend speaks of value, is he bearing in mind the differences in prices?
§ Captain Waterhouse
That is why I emphasised value. It is cash value of which I am speaking, and I now go on to give the figure for volume, which is much less. For March, the value of stocks was 30 per cent. up on March three years ago, but in volume the figure was about 30 per cent. down. I believe the House will realise, as I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Balham and Tooting, that after nearly three years of war it is not an entirely unsatisfactory position to have our shelves stocked within 30 per cent. of the total volume of supplies which we had in times of peace and comparative prosperity. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens) when he was making his point thought I turned round with disapproval. I can assure him that that is the last thing I would do to so distinguished a friend. He referred to the general feeling that small shopkeepers, especially small manufacturers, were unfairly hit. He was realty speaking of the small manufacturer in connection with the concentration scheme. I am afraid that that must always be the case. If one takes a very simple example of an industry with 10 firms which we have to concentrate clown to 50 per cent., and of those 10 firms two are large and eight are small, we would shut down presumably one large firm and four small firms. That 474 would be perfectly fair—half the large and half the small—but we should have four disgruntled small men and only one disgruntled big man. I am afraid we cannot avoid this feeling that the small man is unfairly hit. All we can do is to assure ourselves that, so far as is in our power, we are doing nothing which will make his life more miserable.
§ Captain Waterhouse
If my hon. and learned Friend had had the experience I have had with the Board of Trade, he would know that that is far from the case. The hon. Member for Southampton (Dr. Thomas) raised a question about N.A.A.F.I. "I could not understand what was his grouse. Did I understand him to say that we were allowing too many supplies to go to N.A.A.F.I.?
§ Dr. Thomas
I said that N.A.A.F.I. has a bigger clientele as people are called up, and I point out that N.A.A.F.I., generally, is another nail in the coffin of the small trader.
§ Captain Waterhouse
As against that, there is the happy fact that the spending power of the country is a great deal larger than it has been, and that, I think, has fully counteracted the effect of several millions spending a proportion, and only a proportion, with N.A.A.F.I. Not all soldiers go to N.A.A.F.I., and sometimes to our consternation they buy commodities which are in short supply from outside. Naturally I cannot say anything to anticipate the proposals of the Committee, even if I knew what they were. I understand that the Committee are now completing their labours and that before long, whether it is days or weeks I am not sure, my right hon. Friend will be in possession of their Report. No doubt the House will then ask that it should be debated. We are fully aware of the difficulties of this problem, and we feel quite definitely that, in spite of the difficulties and in spite of the hardships which may be and are being inflicted, it is the Board's first duty to ensure that available supplies of essential goods are fairly distributed among the public. That, clearly, is our first task, and, having done that, we want to see that they are fairly 475 distributed, in so far as it is possible, among the distributors. I should like to say that we have found the attitude of the wholesalers most helpful when we have approached them about complaints from Members of Parliament and others that in certain directions supplies are not coming forward. The other day the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Reed) wrote to us stating that there was not a cup or saucer in Exeter. We got in touch with the wholesalers and found, through our area distribution officer, a wholesaler who had a stock, not a large stock, of pottery available in that area, and by next day we were able to send a certain supply down. That, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Balham and Tooting will agree is a good deal more agreeable than trying to commandeer the whole of the wholesalers' trade.
§ Captain Waterhouse
The Government used their benign powers of persuasion on this reasonable body of people and got what they wanted. I think, when possible, that is a more comfortable way for the Government to act Inequalities are inevitable in any scheme, and we have to face up to that. Firms in one district are far worse off than firms in another district. Those Members who represent the East coast towns and South coast towns have a very different problem confronting their traders from those who represent the great Midland industrial towns. We cannot get equality, however hard we try. All we can get, and all we are trying to get, is the minimum of hardship in these very difficult times, and to spread a feeling that, at least, we are doing our best to see that traders, small and large alike, are having a fair deal as far as the Government can deal with the matter at all.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)
Might I put this question? The Minister opened his speech by saying that this is not a new problem but an old one. I feel he may have thereby given the impression that he does not appreciate that the war-time problems, coming on top of many difficult years in the past, have really made the position of small retailers very desperate. Will he say something to remove any possible doubt on that, in that he does realise that war-time 476 difficulties, coming on top of others, have brought this matter to a crisis?
§ Captain Waterhouse
The hon. Member who raised the point referred to the fact that there was this tendency, but there is no doubt in our minds that it has been tremendously accentuated as a result of the war.