HC Deb 13 October 1942 vol 383 cc1477-85
35. Mr. Leslie

asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he is now in a position to make a statement about the Third Interim Report of the Retail Trade Committee, in view of the fact that the committee is unable to proceed with its work of considering post-war problems of the retail distributive trades other than food?

Mr. Dalton

I am much obliged to the members of the Retail Trade Committee for their valuable work, and I am in consultation with the chairman regarding the future of the committee. The principal recommendation in the committee's third report, for a compulsory levy on retail traders, has met with strong opposition from most sections of the trade, would involve much administration, and could not be put into force without legislation, which would be controversial. His Majesty's Government, therefore, have decided not to adopt it.

Mr. Leslie

Does not the Minister agree that, in view of the chaos existing in the distributive trades, it would be well if the committee got down to the work of considering post-war problems? Is he aware of the solution advanced in regard to this matter by the Trades Union Congress?

Mr. Dalton

As I mentioned in my answer, I am in touch with the chairman of the committee regarding its future, and I hope to see the chairman again to-morrow.

Sir Percy Harris

Does the answer of the right hon. Gentleman mean that the Government propose to do nothing about this difficult problem?

Mr. Dalton

No, Sir. Perhaps I may mention that there may be another Question on this subject later in the proceedings.

43. Mr. De la Bère

asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he is now in a position to make a statement regarding his proposals for the future of the retail trade?

Mr. Dalton

Yes, Sir. I would ask my hon. Friend to await a statement which, with the leave of the House, I will make at the end of Questions.

54. Mr. Craven-Ellis

asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he is yet in a position to come to a decision on the proposal to issue licences to proprietors of small businesses who have closed down in consequence of the war, so that they may have priority for a specified period in re-establishing themselves after the war?

Mr. Dalton

As regard industrial concerns, I would refer my hon. Friend to the undertaking given in paragraph 3 of the Explanatory Memorandum on the Concentration of Production. As regard retail businesses, I would ask my hon. Friend to await the statement I propose to make at the end of Questions.

At the end of Questions:

Mr. Dalton

In my speech to the House on 23rd July I referred to complaints from small retailers that they were not getting their fair share of supplies. I undertook to investigate these complaints and have made inquiries accordingly. The evidence is conflicting. On the one hand, small shopkeepers complain that they cannot obtain goods, which they see in the windows of larger stores or multiples, or advertised in the Press. On the other hand, it is clear that many suppliers, wholesalers and manufacturers have been distributing goods to their customers fairly, some having worked out elaborate systems of rationing for this purpose. But, whether or not there is serious maldistribution now, as time goes on and supplies become shorter, there is a real danger that a large number of the smaller shops may be squeezed out of business. For many reasons this would be undesirable. Stocks of essential goods should be widely dispersed, in order to minimise the risk of air-raid damage. Secondly, many rural areas depend on small shops. If these get insignificant supplies, the consumers in those areas must go short. Thirdly, to economise transport, people should shop near home and avoid as far as possible expeditions to the larger shops in neighbouring towns or districts. Finally, increasing Government demands for storage and office accommodation must be met and we must look to the larger shops to yield up substantial amounts of space.

I have, therefore, come to the conclusion that some positive action is needed to assure to the small retailer his fan-share of the available supplies. What I have in mind is that, for certain classes of goods, each small retailer should receive a percentage of his purchases in a standard year. These percentages would be fixed by the Board of Trade and would depend on the relation of supplies in the current year to those in the standard year. Arrangements would also have to be made for extra supplies for areas where, owing to movements of population and other causes, needs of consumers have increased. A scheme of this kind could be imposed by Order. But I do not want to make fresh Orders, if I can get the same results by voluntary methods, and I believe that in this case, with the cooperation of the trade, we can get what we want with the minimum of compulsion. I propose to begin with clothing, pottery and hollow-ware—three of the most important trades—but I do not rule out the possibility of further extensions later. I intend to appoint small joint committees of retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers, for each of these three trades, with independent chairmen, to advise me how best to apply a plan of this kind to their trades, and, when the plan is approved, to supervise its working. If any Committee reports that a particular firm refuses to follow the approved scheme, I propose, after due inquiry, to issue directions to that firm.

These proposals will promote fair distribution, both between areas and retailers. But further steps are needed. Economy in the handling of small orders can be realised through bulking them, either by arrangement between the wholesalers dealing with a particular area, or by the shopkeepers in an area combining their purchases. Such arrangements present difficulties, but my intention is to facilitate them in every way possible. We must ensure that distribution is conducted on the most economical lines, and that no unnecessary transport or labour is used to move goods from manufacturer and wholesaler to consumer. We must face the fact that supplies will become even shorter as stocks run down, and that fresh calls will be made on the retail trade to provide labour for war purposes. I have been in touch with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour on this problem and he will be announcing shortly the new arrangements to be made. It is, I fear, inevitable that, as the war continues, the difficulties of retail traders will increase and I have, therefore, had to consider what steps can be taken to assist those in trouble. I have discussed with my Noble Friend the Lord Chancellor the Retail Trade Committee's proposal for an extension of the Liabilities (War-Time Adjustment) Act. We came to the conclusion that such extension is unnecessary. So far little use has been made of this Act—probably because traders do not understand how much help can be obtained from it. I am taking steps to remedy this. I wish to emphasise that it is not necessary to withdraw from business in order to take advantage of the Act. It helps those who stay in, as well as those who go out. I hope that traders, to whom the war has brought financial difficulties, will not hesitate to have recourse to this Act, which was designed precisely for the kind of circumstances in which they may find themselves. I think I have correctly interpreted the feeling, both of the House and of the retail trade, in concentrating upon proposals designed to help traders who are still in business. But I have not forgotten those who have already withdrawn or who may be forced by circumstances to withdraw in future. The first step to safeguard their interests is the establishment of a register, and this I propose to do forthwith.

Mr. De la Bère

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether the Government will guarantee the small trader a certain percentage? Do I understand that there will be a definite guarantee to each small trader now in business, of a percentage of his pre-war supplies?

Mr. Dalton

Yes, Sir, that is the intention of the plan.

Colonel Arthur Evans

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the recent Order with regard to the distribution of sports goods through the N. A. A.F.I. is seriously embarrassing the sports goods retail trade? Is he aware that the scheme is not satisfactory, and will he undertake to look into this matter again?

Mr. Dalton

That is a different subject. It is a particular example of the particular Questions put and answered in the House. If the hon. and gallant Gentleman cares to put down another Question, I will answer it, but this is dealing with the larger issue.

Major Petherick

Would it not be suitable to include distributors of sports goods in the measure which he proposes to adopt in the case of the clothing and other trades he has mentioned to-day? Is he aware that the recent action taken by the Board of Trade will probably ruin a large proportion of the retailers of sports goods throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Dalton

That, again, is a particular case.

Wing-Commander James

Can the right hon. Gentleman say what steps will be taken to see that multiple shops which are manufacturers as well as distributors are directed to supply their goods to small traders?

Mr. Dalton

If the hon. and gallant Gentleman will read my statement, I think he will find that that point is covered.

Captain De Chair

Can the right hon. Gentleman say how this will affect small retail traders in battle areas?

Mr. Dalton

It does not directly touch that point. The proposals I have been announcing to the House relate to traders still continuing in business. If they have ceased to continue in business since the beginning of the war, I intend to make a register and, on that, to consider what further measures can be taken.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

With regard to the proposals that retailers' stocks should be based on the pre-war position, is my right hon. Friend aware that in many country districts people are unable to get points rationed goods because shops do not possess them and did not possess them even before the war started? Further, is he aware that the system will not apply fairly with regard to food?

Mr. Dalton

My statement does not apply to food, which is under the Ministry of Food. It applies to the non-food retail trades.

Mr. Rhys Davies

The statement that the right hon. Gentleman is to set up joint committees will be welcomed. Would it not be possible on occasions to find a shop worker who might help with the work of a committee?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

Can the right Gentleman make it clear what is the area of jurisdiction of these joint committees? It is not quite clear from his statement.

Mr. Dalton

The intention is originally to set up three committees of national scope, and it will be for them to advise me as to the best administrative system and as to how far local committees should be set up. I shall begin by setting up three committees. As regards the point raised by the hon. Gentleman opposite, and others, I will take them into consideration with a view to giving the greatest satisfaction to the interests of all concerned.

Mr. Mathers

As it appears to be obvious that this arrangement will apply to Scotland as well as to the country South of the Border, will my right hon. Friend keep in mind the fact that the Liabilities (War-time Adjustment) Act does not apply to Scotland?

Mr. Dalton

That is so, and I am in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland on that matter. I consulted him before making this statement. He will speak for himself on this matter, but we are in touch.

Captain Peter Macdonald

Will the right hon. Gentleman consult the Minister of Labour on this question, because many small traders are being put out of business through the calling-up of key men and women? Unless this point is dealt with, the statement he has made will be ineffective.

Mr. Dalton

If the hon. and gallant Gentleman will read my statement—I know that it was long and difficult to take in orally—he will see that I stated that I have been in touch with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour on the whole question of labour withdrawals from the retail trade. My right hon. Friend will have something to say on that.

Mr. Evelyn Walkden

Is my right hon. Friend aware that unless he lays down in clear and unmistakable language the relationship between wholesaler and retailer on the one hand and the wholesaler arid the trust syndicates and combines on the other, one will get less and the other more? The position will remain exactly the same, and the small retailer will still go out of business.

Commander Sir Archibald Southby

In view of the statement which the right hon. Gentleman has made, and the questions he has been asked, will he look again into the question of the distribution of sports goods by retailers, because it is a hard case?

Mr. Dalton

The arrangement was made in consultation with the War Office, and I would not like to give the impression—I do not want to mislead the House—that it can be reconsidered in the sense of being altered. The matter was gone into very fully. Nevertheless, without making any commitment that the arrangement can be changed, I will look into the question again.

Mr. Doland

Is it the Government's intention not to implement any of the recommendations of the Select Committee which was set up?

Mr. Dalton

I said in answer to a Question put earlier by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Leslie) that we are not going to implement the principal recommendation. I have also referred to other recommendations in the course of the reply just given.

Mr. Linstead

Are we to understand from that reply that the right hon. Gentleman has abandoned any proposal dealing with compensation of men who have been put out of business owing to war conditions?

Mr. Dalton

I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Leslie) that the particular proposal contained in the report of the Retail Trade Committee will not be acted upon by the Government for the reasons which I have given.

Mr. Craven-Ellis

On a point of Order. I put a Question—No. 54—to the right hon. Gentleman, and his reply was that he intended to make a statement covering the matter at the end of Questions. The statement which he has made contains no reference to the point in my Question. The right hon. Gentleman refers to registration. Is it to be registration of those traders who have been put out of business and is it intended that they will get priority in re-establishing themselves after the war?

Mr. Dalton

I do not know whether I may answer what is perhaps doubtfully described as a point of Order.

Mr. Speaker

I think the hon. Member's Question was intended for the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Dalton

I cannot at the moment add anything to the answer given in the last part of the statement which I have just made to the House. I am going to take steps to have a register made. The exact use that will be made of that register is a matter for further consideration. Until we have got the register and have defined the size of the problem, we cannot move in the direction desired by my hon. Friend.

Sir Waldron Smithers

Arising out of the important and encouraging statement which the President of the Board of Trade has made, may I ask him whether, so that all Government Departments may have an identical policy in this matter, he would send that statement to the Minister of Food and ask the Minister Of Food to reverse his policy of subsidising big interests at the expense of the smaller retailer producers?

Mr. Dalton

I do not know that the exact procedure suggested by my hon. Friend would be the proper one. Retail trade problems in regard to food differ from those which arise in regard to nonfood trades, and I have no authority to speak on the food aspect of the question.

Mr. Maxton

The Minister said he would attempt to get a voluntary scheme working, and that in the event of individual shopkeepers being outside-this scheme, he would issue a direction apparently to them. Can he give us some indication of the kind of direction he contemplates?

Mr. Dalton

Yes, Sir. The direction will be to distribute the supplies in their hands equitably between the different purchasers who buy from them, in relation to the distribution in the standard year.

Mr. McGovern

If traders desire to remain outside is there any power to refuse labour to those firms and prevent them from getting material?

Mr. Dalton

The firms to whom I would propose to issue the direction would not be retailers. They would be either wholesalers or manufacturers. I should not be prepared to permit any wholesaler or manufacturer in the trade scheduled to remain outside. They would be expected to make a fair distribution among their retailers of the supplies they receive. That is the whole purpose.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

In view of the very wide scope of the statement which my right hon. Friend has made and the difficulty of dealing by Question and answer with all the points which it involves, would my right hon. Friend consider the desirability of having a Debate on this subject?

Mr. Dalton

That is not a matter for me.