HC Deb 23 June 1943 vol 390 cc1272-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir J. Edmondson.]

Mr. Linstead (Putney)

I wish to invite the attention of the House to soft drinks, and in particular to the concentration scheme for the soft drinks industry which is partially in operation at the present time and is about to 'be completed. That scheme is worked by means of a War-time Association governed by a committee, and the whole of it is under the supervision of the Ministry of Food. There are two schemes involved. One is a scheme for the concentration of the industry and the other is a scheme for the election of the committee which is to run the concentration scheme. On both, the concentration scheme proper and the scheme for the committee, the Government have a majority of votes and can at any time impose their wishes on those responsible for the two schemes. To-morrow, the second of the schemes, that is the scheme for the approval of a method of electing a committee, has to come before a general meeting of the Association.

The matter I wish to bring to the notice of the House has a very topical significance at the present time. The serious difficulty, it seems to me, with which the industry is faced at the present time is that quite a number of firms of standing in the industry honestly believe that this concentration scheme is not being fairly operated. We have all, I think, received letters indicating that there is, among firms of consider- able standing in the industry, doubt about the way in which the scheme is likely to progress. That atmosphere of suspicion is the matter to which I want to direct the attention of the House. I think we can understand how it has arisen only if we take the point of view of one of the firms that is likely to be subject to this concentration scheme. From their point of view, they remember that in April, 1942, they put up a scheme of concentration of their own which was rejected. They remember that the articles of association of the War Time Association have never been submitted to a meeting of members for their approval. They remember that the first committee of 12 members was put to the Association on the nomination of the Minister, with very little opportunity for the Association to put up its own nominees. They have just recently found that there is a proposal to amend the scheme by which members of the committee are to be elected. They have asked for an independent chairman, and the Minister has not found it possible to grant that request. For all these reasons, it is understandable that there is within the industry at the present time a feeling of suspicion about working the scheme.

It is not surprising that a man who is worried by war-time troubles in the conduct of his business and who then discovers he may find his business closed through the operation of this scheme, is likely to feel, with this sort of history in the background, that the dice are loaded against him. In such circumstances it is surely the duty of the Minister and of this House to reassure the industry that it is getting a square deal. If the Parliamentary Secretary is able to give the assurances which I am certain he is in a position to give, I am sure that those of us who have been called in to the aid of the industry should use our best endeavours to remove this atmosphere of suspicion. The Parliamentary Secretary could do a great deal to reassure the industry by giving an explanation of two facts and assurances on two rather simple points. So often a public explanation can do a great deal to remove misapprehension. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will find it possible to explain why the request of the industry for an independent chairman could not be granted, and why it is not possible for the Minister to say now that he will not use the Government votes at the meeting to-morrow to decide on the scheme for the election of a committee of the Association. That is a purely domestic matter, one would think, and it should be possible to leave the Association to conduct its own affairs without the intervention of the Government votes.

Then there are two assurances that I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to give. They are extremely simple, so simple that it is almost an impertinence to ask a Minister of the Crown to give them, but, knowing the suspicion that there is in the background, I ask for these assurances, without making any suggestion of mala fides or anything of that sort, because I think they will help. I hope that he will give an assurance that there is going to be no interference with the present appeals machinery, whereby a firm served with a notice to close a factory has a right of appeal, and that when the election for the committee comes on in September firms will be completely free to vote for whomsoever they like without any pressure. To us in the House those assurances could be almost taken for granted, but to the industry a statement on those lines will do a great deal. It will remove the worst misunderstandings, and will, I am sure, bring about an improvement in the atmosphere. The sad thing is that this industry is split into two. The sooner we can remove the reasons for the split and get the industry working on the concentration scheme, the better for all concerned.

Major Procter (Accrington)

I am sure that everyone who is interested in this matter has been struck by the very moderate way the case for the opposition to this scheme has been put forward. I regard this whole measure as jiggery-pokery from beginning to end, and I do not propose to mince my words. I am certain that if this House had considered this scheme before it came into operation, it would never have gone through. The scheme of concentration as a whole is an obnoxious scheme. It is the worst form of the application of—I was going to say Socialism, but it is far worse than that. Here is a limited company. It was pointed out in the last Adjournment Debate that the whole of the goodwill and assets of hard-working manufacturers has been put for the entire duration of the war into the custody of highly-placed, important competitors. In my opinion, this scheme will be used—and it is being used—in order to enable a monopoly to be created in the soft drinks industry which will crush out for all time the small men. It was very quietly and courteously asked that, instead of the head of a most powerful group being made the chairman of this organisation, there should be appointed as chairman a man who had no axe to grind whatever and who could deal with all the interests of both the big and little men from the judicial point of view.

I want to know why it is that this powerful group has been able to persuade the Government to place the livelihood of hundreds of men into the hands of monopolists and powerful competitors who can use this scheme to crush them and keep them out of this business altogether. In the election which is to be held in a short time the voting is to be on gallonage, that is, according to the number of gallons produced since the war. Is that reasonable? Many of the people who comprise this Association did not want to come in; they are in it against their will. The awarding of voting power on gallonage appears to be opposed to every democratic instinct in this House. They are also going to draw out of the scheme according to their profits. If you are going to be anti-democratic, you ought at least to be fair. Why not have the same scheme in each instance? It is based on the last year's trading, which benefits the firms which did not have their factories requisitioned during the early part of the war and which have not gone partly or wholly on to work more directly concerned with the war effort. It penalises the firm which, since the war, has put the war effort first and encouraged its staff to do the same. It penalises the firm which kept faith with its customers. It benefits the firms who, by selfishness or any other methods, took advantage of the opportunity, including the calling-up of managers and staffs, to increase output during war-time. Intimidation is being used in the way that this election is being carried out. There have been letters, and here is one from the Sheffield and District Mineral Water Manufacturers' Association, the chairman of which is on the committee. This is what he said: You will possibly have received your form of proxy by to-day's post. Please note that this is not the official form sent on by your Association and should be ignored. The form of proxy should be received by 23rd inst. and is the only official form. I maintain that the small men are being bullied and prevented from having a voice at the election. If they go to the meeting to-morrow and put up their hands, they can be kept out by the articles of association. Those who have the proxy vote will rule the day. I ask the Minister to see that there shall be a democratic vote and that there shall be an independent chairman whose job it will be to preserve the businesses of the small men for those who return after the war.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Mr. Mabane)

I am not quite certain which voice I should listen to of the two voices I have heard in this brief Debate. The hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Linstead) put his case with consideration and in such a way that the differences in this industry to which he referred might have been smoothed over, but the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Accrington (Major Procter). who, on a previous occasion, made a speech in violent language on this subject, has used some of that language again to-day. The House ought to be aware of the unfortunate timing of this Debate. To-morrow, 24th June, a meeting is to be held at which this War Time Association is to take certain decisions. Certain motions will be submitted to it, having regard to the scheme which was submitted by the existing Committee on 28th February, I think the House will appreciate that it would be improper for me to say anything to-day that would in any way prejudice the decisions to be taken at that meeting.

Major Procter

Would the hon. Gentleman excuse me a moment, because——

Mr. Mabane

No, the hon. and gallant Gentleman interrupted me a great deal last time I spoke on this matter, and the consequence was that I was not able to complete a rather important statement, which led to misunderstanding afterwards. I was very careful not to interrupt him while he was speaking just now. Let me tell the House of the circumstances which exist. The existing Committee of the War Time Association were required by their constitution to submit a scheme for the election of a Committee to succeed the present temporary Committee. They submitted proposals, as required, on 28th February last. After full consideration of the views of the Committee, and of the trade association and other bodies, the Minister approved the proposals for the constitution of the new Committee, with certain amendments. To-morrow an extraordinary general meeting of the Association is to be held in order to consider the scheme as amended. I feel it is greatly to be regretted that certain members of the industry have thought fit to send a circular to members of the Association in what I think is most immoderate and unreasonable language. For instance, this document says: We look to you to judge whether or not we are entitled to stigmatise these proposals as jiggery-pokery. The hon. and gallant Member for Accrington used that phrase in his speech to-day. It is a very serious accusation to make either against the Department or against a number of men who have had the highest and most honourable reputation in business. The circular goes on to say: Human nature being what it is, such circumstances inevitably promote wire-pulling, the play of personal friendship, the paying off of old scores, or the unconscious giving effect to personal prejudices. Again, those are most serious charges, and I think that if those charges are to be. levelled against any one man, and the hon. and gallant Member mentioned one man, if not by name, then in such terms that everyone can recognise him, then they ought to be made openly so that the man accused can face those charges. Then: We regard the manner in which the proposed change in the constitution of the Association has been incorporated in the new scheme … as a piece of jiggery-pokery which insults the intelligence of the members of the industry. This document was circulated with the heading in large type, "The Soft Drinks Industry (War Time Association) Ltd.," and there is reason to think it has been mistaken by some persons into whose hands it has fallen as a document issued by the Association itself. With this document there was enclosed a form of proxy headed, also in large black type, "The Soft Drinks Industry (War Time Association) Ltd.," and there is reason to think that some members of the Association have mistaken this for a proxy issued by their own Association. I have a selection of letters from members of the Association who received this and in some cases, not appreciating that it was not the proxy of their own Association, signed it. Here is one: As we have no desire to be associated with this branch of the Soft Drink Industry we shall be pleased to have fresh voting card. Here is another: This is to certify that the proxy we sent … was sent by us in error. We therefore revoke same. Another writes that he was misled by fie proxy addressed to him by the hon. Member's friends. Another writes: It was not until we discovered that this second card had been posted … that we were aware that we had been deceived by the similarity of the two cards. It is important that the House should appreciate that this is the effect that has been produced on the minds of some members of the trade. In general there is no doubt that the trade supports the scheme, as is evident from the emphatic and repeated comments in one of the independent journals of the trade itself. At present the industry is passing through something comparable with a General Election, and no one takes too tragic a view of this kind of document at the time of a General Election. Had the hon. Gentleman not mentioned these particular matters and initiated this Debate on the eve of this extraordinary general meeting I should have thought it undesirable to make any observations on the way this propaganda has been conducted. I do not think it will have much influence on the minds of those who are taking part in the meeting to-morrow.

A considerable part of the document is a criticism of the Minister on the ground that he has a controlling vote. There can be no doubt whatever of the enthusiasm of the industry in giving the Minister this vote. [Interruption.] There can be no doubt whatever of the enthusiasm of the industry. They thought that, by this means, the interests of the minority and the interests of individual firms would be adequately safeguarded. My Department is very much concerned in the success of this and other concentration schemes. It is better to have a scheme which will enable closed factories to be compensated than to achieve closure by the withdrawal of man-power, so that they will be unable to carry on the business and have no compensation. It is when the selection of factories to be closed arises that difficulties begin. Every owner thinks there is good reason why his factory should not be closed down.

In some respects this scheme is more favourable to closed firms than other similar schemes. There is one respect in which it is different from other concentration schemes with which the Ministry of Food is concerned. The Association itself is more closely identified with the administration of the scheme, and particularly with the selection of the factories to be closed down in the future. Experience during the last 18 months has shown that the War Time Association through its existing Committee who are members of the trade has done an extremely good job of work, but it is inevitable that people who are doing that job should be open to far more criticism than those who do not have such responsibilities as they bear. The Department is very grateful to those who have co-operated in endeavouring to do their best to make this scheme workable. Provision is made for appeal to an independent tribunal and from that to the Minister himself. The hon. Gentleman asked for an assurance on that point. I cannot understand why he should ask for an assurance, because there is no reason why anyone should imagine that this independent tribunal was going to be taken away. It is an essential part of the proceedings. I should not, however, be justified in binding the Minister for ever or to suggest that he would not at some future time consider any proposals that might be submitted to him by the War Time Association for modifying the arrangements in this and other respects. They might want another kind of tribunal or two tribunals, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I know of no reason for any anxiety on the part of any member of the Association in regard to the existence and continuance of the tribunal arrangements. He asked me to give a certain assurance about to-morrow's meeting. Before that he asked me another question. Some of his questions were framed in the historic form of "When did you stop beating your wife?" He asked me why it was not possible for the Minister to grant the request for an independent chairman. There has been no such request from the industry.

Major Procter

I submitted it myself on behalf of the industry.

Mr. Mabane

I said that there had been no request from the industry. I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman was the official representative of the industry. Is he? I do not think he is. I stick to what I said, that there has been no request from the industry. With regard to to-morrow's meeting, I cannot go beyond saying that the officers of the Department who will represent the Minister have been instructed in the course they should take, and I am not authorised by my noble Friend to give any information as to the nature of those instructions. To do otherwise would clearly prejudice the proceedings.

If any hon. Member is sufficiently interested in this subject to read the manifesto dated 11th June to which I have referred and then read the circular dated 17th June issued by the existing Committee, I think he will have little doubt where the merits lie. I hope that the wish of the hon. Member for Putney will be realised and that peace will come to this industry. I hope, too, that accusations by innuendo will cease. We want to secure that the industry is concentrated in such a way that the maximum of economy is assured and that everyone is doing as well as he can in the circumstances. If accusations are no longer thrown about it will be of benefit to the industry and the country.

Major Petherick (Penryn and Falmouth)

I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend who has replied on behalf of the Government. I think that the mistake he made was in appointing as chairman of this Association a most eminent and highly respectable man in the industry who is chairman of Kia-ora and Schweppes. It created a feeling of uncertainty among the smaller firms when they saw their biggest competitor as the chairman of the War Time Association which is responsible for the organisation of the trade.

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.