§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Captain Waterhouse)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
This Bill has passed through another place and will, I think, serve a useful purpose in the regulation of the disposal of consumable goods. Section 9 of the Goods and Services (Price Control) Act, 1941, was designed to prevent traders from imposing conditions of gale or discriminating in an undesirable way in the sale of goods between one customer and another. But there are, quite clearly, a certain number of special cases where such discrimination may be desirable, and those classes of cases are set out in Section 9 of the Act. This provides that it is a defence for any trader who refuses to sell, or makes a condition of sale of, any goods if he can prove that to sell without condition, or sell at all, would be contrary to the normal practice of his business, would involve a breach of some obligation legally binding on him or would interfere with arrangements made by him for the orderly disposal of his stocks among his regular customers. I want to emphasise that nothing in this Bill makes it possible for the Board of Trade, by direction or by Order, to modify any of those defences. The Bill, in other words, extends and in no way curtails the freedom of the trader in this direction. Under the Defence Regulations, 1939, the Board 598 already has power to prohibit the sale of any specified commodity or to limit the sale of that commodity to those to whom it has issued permits.
But in many cases it is desirable not to go so far as that. The permit system has one obvious disadvantage; it freezes stocks in a trader's premises. The House will probably have in mind the case of rubber boots. When we lost Malaya it was thought necessary to stop the sale of rubber boots in the country as a whole, and an Order was made under the Defence Regulations limiting the sale of such boots to those who held permits. The result of that was that considerable stocks became frozen in the hands of many retailers who had a justifiable complaint which was only remedied when the stocks were collected and redistributed in a way which enabled those people most in need of them to buy them. There are, however, certain other commodities which, although especially necessary to certain sections of the community are in sufficient supply to allow a considerable residuum to be sold to consumers in general. As the law stands at present, it is impossible for any trader legally to discriminate in this sort of way. This Bill gives the Board of Trade power to issue licences allowing a trader—and I emphasise the word "allowing," because it is permissive and not compulsory—so to restrict his sales.
There are various cases in which these provisions will be of use. The Ministry of Works, for example, have a scheme by which paint is supplied to civilian customers who have special need for it. The Ministry of Health have a scheme by which the sale of hot-water bottles is limited to those who have medical needs, the Ministry of Fuel give priority for the purchase of paraffin to those who have no other means of lighting their houses and the Board of Trade, after serious air raids, have arrangements for restocking shops with essential household goods. It is clearly desirable that when these goods are put into the shops only those who are bombed out of their homes should have first call on them. But it is equally desirable that that call should be the first call, because there may be many cases where those not bombed out have as equal a necessity as the bombee. This Bill allows discretion to the retail trade in that particular regard. The House will agree that it would be undesir- 599 able to deal with such cases on the basis of a restrictive permit system. It is a great deal better to get the experienced collaboration of the retail trader who knows his district and his customers and their special requirements, and to allow him this discretionary power.
There are some words towards the end of the first Clause of this little Bill which I should like to explain. They are to the effect that the Board of Trade may issue licences authorising retail tradersto restrict sales from such stocks to particular classes of buyers or otherwise as may be specified in a licence or to impose conditions as may be specified therein on such sales notwithstanding anything in section nine of the said Act.I believe it is thought in some parts of this House, and elsewhere, that by inserting the words "or otherwise," giving us power to impose other conditions in the licence, we are taking an unnecessary power of administration. I wish to make it clear that that Section of the Goods and Services Act, 1941, applies not only to retailers, but to manufacturers and wholesalers, and these words are inserted to allow manufacturers or wholesalers to make it a condition of sale that the retailer will sell only to certain classes of consumers.
As an example, take the case of thermos flasks. The House is aware that most consumable goods are in increasingly short supply. Thermos flasks are being made but not in sufficient quantities to allow everybody who wants a thermos flask to buy one. From time to time, certain sections of the community in certain districts, who have to take meals to work—potato pickers, hop pickers and certain industrial workers for example—have a special need for thermos flasks. In such cases, it is usual for the Board of Trade to ask the manufacturers to send a supply to a particular district for a particular purpose, and they want to be able to ask the retailers to give a prior right in the buying of these flasks to the people for whom they are intended. This Bill authorises the manufacturer to give a general instruction to his retailer, that there is to be preference for the particular category of people who most need the commodity concerned.
§ Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)
But it is still left to the discretion of the retail trader. Supposing the wholesaler 600 lays down the condition that the retailer is to sell these thermos flasks only to a particular class of people, it is entirely open to the retailer whether he observes the condition or not. It is really left to his honour. The condition may not be observed at all.
§ Captain Waterhouse
It is true that there is a certain discretion but, of course, the wholesaler or manufacturer sends the retailer the articles on the condition that he sells them only to a particular class of people. If he breaks that condition, it is true that the wholesaler cannot sue him for it. He just would not send that retailer another consignment.
§ Captain Waterhouse
He can prove it only if the complaint of a shortage continues, and if specific complaints are brought either to the Board of Trade or the price regulation committee or the wholesaler himself. If people come forward and say, "We have gone into a shop where flasks were available a little while ago, and no flasks are available now," inquiries will be made, and it will be found whether or not the retailer has kept within the general request of his wholesaler. The point is that at present it is illegal for the wholesaler to make such a condition, or even such a request. That would be contrary to Section 9 of the original Act and under this Bill what is at present illegal will become legal and the wholesaler will be allowed to make that request.
§ Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)
It has been quite usual for wholesalers to lay down such conditions upon retailers.
§ Captain Waterhouse
It has been usual in the past and we would like it to be usual again, but if they sought to do it now, they would, in fact, be breaking the law, unless they could say that it had been a normal practice in the business, coming under one of these special provisions.
I would like to give another example of why these words "or otherwise" are necessary. It is sometimes desirable to introduce a time for delivery into one of these licences. We have a system by which wholesalers collaborate with us in holding considerable stocks of essential 601 consumer goods for the benefit of people who are bombed out. They are emergency stock holders and they do not sell that part of their stock to the general public. We want to be able to put in the licence a provision enabling wholesalers to refuse to sell to their retail customers until such time as bombing necessity arises I hope the House will agree that these provisions are in no way onerous on the retailer. They are permissive and not mandatory and give a discretionary power which will be of use to the consumer, and I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, South)
If my memory serves me aright, this Bill was introduced as a sequel to a Question which I put to my hon. and gallant Friend some weeks ago. One might say that it is designed to legalise what is commonly known as the "under-the-counter" trade, which is a particular brand of the black market. It is not necessarily evil on that account. It may be desirable to have a particular kind of black market to which certain people are granted special access. That is what the Bill is doing. A great many traders who have been abused for doing so, have really rendered considerable service by saying "I am going to keep certain classes of goods in short supply, in order to be able to supply those people who are, I know, particularly in need of them." Traders have, quite wrongly, been abused for doing something which is exceedingly sensible. There is another point. We all know that when we go into a shop in which we are regular customers we get much better treatment than we do in a shop where we are not regular customers. I am not criticising anybody for that. If I were a shopkeeper I should be inclined to treat my hon. and gallant Friend rather better, because I knew him, than I would some strange person who was unknown to me. That is natural and human, but here we are regulating it and now that we are proposing to regulate it I am not quite clear about the administrative side of the proposals. A licence is to be issued to the shopkeeper, apparently to enable him to distribute flasks. I do not know of what use the flasks are, unless you happen to have access to another black market where you can fill them, but that is another matter.
§ Sir H. Williams
I beg pardon, I did not hear the word "thermos," and I did not realise that this Bill was being passed for the special benefit of the hon. Member and some other hon. Members who are patrons of thermos flasks. If the licences are to be granted to individual traders to sell certain things in a restricted way to a specified class of customers, then the fact ought to be publicly known. In other words, the licence ought to be displayed on the premises. Otherwise, many traders are going to be treated badly in public and private conversations because people will say "So and so is treating his customers differentially." Either the licence should be displayed, or some notice put up to the effect that the trader is an authorised distributor of certain goods to certain classes of customers, in order to protect the trader against the ill-will to which he might otherwise be subjected.
It would not be necessary, I suggest, to put any words into the Bill to that effect. The Bill is administrative, and the Board of Trade could authorise the recipient of a licence to put up a notice such as I have indicated. You have that with regard to motor tyres. The only people who can buy motor tyres are those who have an authority given, I think, on their motor licence form. If you want a tyre you get the authorisation and go to an authorised distributor. In this case the number of purchasers might be so large that the issue of a licence to each would be administratively top-heavy, and the Government quite properly are proposing to trust the traders to play fair. The way to make sure that the trader is playing fair is to do as I suggest, and thus turn the whole public into a friendly policeman while at the same time relieving the trader from attacks which might otherwise be made upon him because people did not realise that he had authority from the Board of Trade for what he was doing.
Certain of my hon. Friends have tabled two Amendments to this Bill, one of which, I think, is consequential on the other, and some reference has been made to the subject-matter of those Amendments by my hon. and gallant Friend The hon. Member in whose name those Amendments stand is not able to be present in the Chamber at the moment, and 603 if he does not turn up in time, I propose to take the opportunity of moving them formally.
§ Sir H. Williams
I beg pardon. In that case the statement which my hon. and gallant Friend has already made on this matter will be available to my hon. Friends, and they will then be able to consider whether it is necessary to proceed with these Amendments in Committee.
§ Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)
I intervene only because I think these small and apparently harmless Bills should be scrutinised before they are allowed to become Acts of Parliament. With the purpose and intention of the Bill we are all agreed. Certain essential commodities are in short supply, and we wish to be certain that, especially in the case of the medicinal goods, the supplies that are available reach the right people. But, in practice, I do not see how the Bill is to be enforced. The example was given of hot-water bottles and thermos flasks. We all know that in cases of sickness, these articles are very necessary and that it is not always possible to obtain them. I cannot see how it will be possible to enforce the provisions of this Bill. A chemist has a customer who says that he cannot sleep because of cold feet and that it is necessary for his health to have a hot-water bottle. The chemist supplies him, and afterwards there may be protests that other people who are really ill cannot obtain hot-water bottles, but I cannot see how any penalty can be imposed. This Measure is only the profession of an ideal.
§ Captain Waterhouse
At present it would be illegal for that shopkeeper to refuse to sell a hot-water bottle to anybody who came into the shop. Under this Bill he could refuse to sell. If a healthy person such as my right hon. Friend came into his shop, he would say, "No, Sir Percy, there is no chance of a hot-water bottle for you."
§ Sir P. Harris
In other words, there is nominal power. In practice, it will be impossible to enforce the provisions of the Bill in any effective way. Such legislation is rather a farce. Surely in the middle of the greatest war in history 604 Parliament could spend its time better than in passing Statutes which cannot be enforced. I do not think the House will obstruct the Board of Trade, but I think this Measure is rather a waste of time.
§ Mr. Hammersley (Willesden, East)
Listening to the agreeable and explanatory speech of my hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary one would think this was a very simple and innocuous Measure, and, indeed, it may be, but it may also be the thin end of the wedge. It may contain principles which are objectionable and ought not to be agreed to without careful consideration. Under certain circumstances it is desirable to give priority to particular classes of customers who have special needs. In the case of rubber boots, hot-water bottles and thermos flasks that may be reasonable, but it should also be noted that this Bill initiates the principle of discrimination. It allows the Board of Trade to say to a trader, "You can discriminate as to where you sell your goods." That is rather a new principle, and I am thinking of the Bill not so much from the point of view of what it contains as in the light of certain inferences and evidences in other directions. We were told to-day in reply to a Question that the disposal of all surplus goods—and I take it that surplus goods are covered by this Measure—will be carried out in each particular case through the agency of the Department mainly concerned with the supply of the goods during the war. A Government Department is to have control of the disposal of surplus goods, and apparently will be able to discriminate. Already there is in existence the Surplus Textiles Corporation. After making some inquiries I wrote to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to ask for some information, but although I wrote on 20th October I have not yet had a reply.
I am authoritatively informed that the Surplus Textiles Corporation is being limited by guarantee and set up by persons prominently interested in the textile industry with the knowledge and approval of the Board of Trade, and that the Board of Trade have power to determine admission to membership. The House of Commons ought to look very carefully into that kind of thing. Here we are getting initiatory action allowing the Board of Trade to discriminate. Apparently they 605 are to set up various corporations through which surplus goods can be sold and are going to control the membership of those corporations. Without careful examination we may find that the membership is much too narrowly drawn, that a few selected persons, selected by vested interests, selected, as I understand it, because they were in the trade before, are to be the avenues through which these goods are sold. I should need a good deal of evidence before I was convinced that that was the right way to go about it. Although I am not objecting to this particular Measure, I am raising a word of caution lest we accept Measures of this kind without looking into them carefully. I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to say to us that this is not a little nibble at a great problem which ought to be examined much more carefully before it is brought to the House, and will be able to remove some of the suspicions and feelings of distrust which have come into the minds of one or two of us since hearing of the formation of these disposal corporations. I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will let us have some further information later.
§ Mr. Montague (Islington, West)
This is one of those little Measures that may easily slip through Parliament without adequate consideration. I do not know how far I may he expressing the views of hon. Members behind me, but I think their attitude is likely to be one of suspicion for much the same reasons as were expressed by the hon. Member for East Willesden (Mr. Hammersley). As I understand the Bill, it enables the Board of Trade to decide upon the necessity for certain types of commodities to be restricted to people who are judged to be in special need of them. If the Board of Trade have come to the conclusion from the information in their possession that they ought to have that power, I think they ought to take more than this permissive Measure. The method seems to be undesirable, and I am inclined to think it is likely to be inoperative in practice as well as dangerous. It is dangerous in so far as it opens the way to certain classes of tradespeople to consider the privileges of special customers. It will put behind them the authority of an Act of Parliament, and it will lead to a feeling among the general run of customers that something underhand is being done. Permissive legislation of this character appears 606 to me to be bad in principle, and I am sure we should all like to hear more from the Board of Trade to justify this new departure in legislation. Either it is necessary that powers should be taken by the Board of Trade to restrict the sale of certain commodities to particular types of persons or it is unnecessary. If it is necessary then the Board of Trade should be able to deal through the customer and not through the wholesaler or retailer, not leaving things to the honour of the retailer or the wholesaler but adopting that type of regulation which is already operative throughout the whole range of price controls in war. I express these few ideas because we feel very uncertain about a Measure of this character, and we should like to have more reasons why we should support a Bill which gives permission, and only permission, to types of traders who are not perhaps representative of the trading community in general—I should hope that was not the case—but who do exist and who do create a great amount of suspicion among people that they are not being treated fairly but are put upon a differential basis.
§ Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)
I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will not be able to report to his chief that this Bill has had a favourable reception. There are misgivings about what it sets out to do, and we have every reason to run the tooth comb through the Bill and express our concern. We should ask ourselves, "Will a Bill like this distribute commodities more equitably to the masses of the people and will it guarantee fair and square apportionment of goods which are in short supply?" I say definitely that I do not think it will. It is more likely to create a monopoly for a few persons. The right hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) referred to hot-water bottles, thermos flasks and medicinal supplies. I do not know whether he can tell me where a hot water bottle can he bought in Bethnal Green. They are to be obtained in different places, but not in the shops where they were usually obtainable before the war. If a lady wants to buy press studs, the fasteners which go to the general make-up of a lady's dress, she does not go to a haberdasher or a draper now. She goes to the hucksters in Oxford Street, or those people standing in doorways with little trays of odds and ends. They have acquired 607 a corner in all those goods. Instead of a penny a dozen or a penny for three dozen, they are now 1s. 6d. a dozen—and they are not to be obtained from the proper shops. We should think in terms of gathering up these commodities, parcelling them out to the appropriate quarters and seeing that they are distributed more equitably.
The President of the Board of Trade knows that nowadays thermos flasks are not to be bought at the shops where we were accustomed to go for them, but you can purchase them by the backstairs system. I heard about a window-cleaning company who had purchased and are selling 4,000 gallons of alcoholic ginger wine. They are not registered traders. If the Bill would cause goods to go into the normal channels of trade and reach the consumer more equitably, I should press for it, but it will not. I know that the Board of Trade does not deal with whisky, but I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to inform this House where a bottle of whisky can be obtained to-day for under 40s. or two guineas. It is a well-known fact that the brewers distribute their quota roughly at 23s. a bottle to the tied houses and licensed victuallers. They say, "That is the price for your quota. If you want double the amount, you may have it, but not from your quota, at 37s. a bottle." The Chancellor of the Exchequer gets 18s. 3d. a bottle in both cases. The brewers are helping to cheat the nation because the retailer has to pass the cost on to the consumers. This kind of cheating is generally recognised and will not be controlled by this or by any other Bill. I am concerned that supplies of whisky, hot-water bottles, thermos flasks and any other commodity, should be available to the retailers and consumers.
The Parliamentary Secretary mentioned the question of priorities and rubber boots. I assure him that to-day one does not go to a boot and shoe retailer for rubber boots, which are sold by persons who are not registered to sell them. Everybody knows it in every town. The people who call themselves business people know where these stocks are held. The investigations and examinations of stocks referred to by the hon. and gallant Gentleman will not touch this matter and will not bring the goods to the consumer in more equitable manner. The Bill will only 608 tinker with the matter, and the public will wonder why we are wasting our time with it. I hope that the Bill will not reach the Committee stage, and I believe it is a waste of time.
§ Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)
Having listened for some time to a continuous spate of oratory from the left, I am bound to say from the right that I am in agreement with the last words of the last speaker. I listened carefully to the Parliamentary Secretary, and although I do not like controls, I have come to the conclusion, if I might use an expression which I hope is Parliamentary, that the Bill is bilge. The advantage of the Bill, it seems, is that it tends under certain circumstances and in regard to certain commodities, to free trade by removing the necessity for licences. It does in actual fact allow the trader to do more or less what he likes. Beyond moral aspirations, no sanctions, practically speaking, can be used against the trader at all. I believe there was a sort of trade control which could be used by manufacturers and wholesalers before the war, but in actual fact their effect in war-time would be practically negligible. I was amused to hear the expressions of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) in regard to the freeing of trade. Under normal circumstances I am sure he would not have made them.
The Parliamentary Secretary suggested that what he called "bombees" would be served first. Incidentally, may I respectfully say that I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman should defile the atmosphere of the Commons House of Parliament by the use of such a word, I hope we shall hear no more of them. But what claim will the "bombee," as he calls him, actually have? What method can he use to justify his claim for priority? As I have said, the Bill in actual fact tends more or less to free trade, and the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) was not far wrong when he said that in effect the Bill goes a long way to legalise under-counter trade, which is proceeding with much satisfaction to some at the present time.
§ Mr. R. C. Morrison (Tottenham, North)
The Bill is a mistake. The person who drafted it probably has no knowledge of the subject and has not considered its effect on the psychology of the people. 609 One of the main grievances and causes of irritation, particularly in industrial districts is that shopkeepers do not treat everybody alike but give the goods to the people who have been good customers in the past, and are likely to be good customers in the future. A man came to me complaining that he had a job which necessitated frequent change of working hours, and he wanted an alarm clock. He knew one or two places where he felt sure the shopkeepers had them, but they would not part with them to him, because he did not fulfil certain requirements. He therefore tried to find out, first, the shops which had alarm clocks and, secondly, somebody who was a good customer there and who could get him one. This kind of legislation is simply driving people to deceit. It is building up a form of deceit. The Measure is undesirable because it will give the shopkeeper the opportunity of putting things under the counter and selling them to their best customers.
§ Mr. Woods (Finsbury)
Suspicion is inevitable when legislation is framed in a way which will cause considerable uneasiness throughout the country, without solving any of the problems. We all appreciate that some commodities are in short supply, but the reasons for the short supply should be dealt with. It should be the primary obligation of the Government to see that proper facilities are given for producing sufficient of the things that are necessary for life, in order to meet the need. Restrictions proposed by the Bill give an opportunity for the doling out of goods to selected interests or parties. In 99 cases out of 100 the shopkeeper plays a straight game, but he is soon going to realise that some people, with more time than they ought to have, go round to various shops to get what they want. The average trader says, "This is my quota, liberated to meet my normal requirements," and that attitude is entirely commendable. In a rough and ready way it solved the problem.
The whole matter is aggravated by the Bill. The Board of Trade should get busy with the fact that in some subtle way supplies of commodities get into channels which normally do not deal with those commodities. The Bill does not touch that position at all. I can imagine it causing a great deal of inconvenience to the normal trader and the consuming public, without hindering those people who are 610 now becoming possessed of goods which are in short supply, and who exploit the public by getting round the price regulations. We object to this type of legislation. It is too vague and nebulous. Under it almost anything could happen. There is no guarantee to anybody that the problems which really confront us will be straightened out after all. The House does not need to be reminded that this is the fifth November of the war. It is very late in the day to ask for powers such as this Bill would give.
Let us take an illustration of what might happen under this Bill. Certain supplies might be allocated and licences given. We all know what happens when there are licences and arrangements for the distribution of certain stocks. This case did not come under the hon. and gallant Gentleman's Department, but in the case of the liberation of a certain supply of paint for domestic purposes, which came under another Department, it was allocated, and one of the largest distributors of paint throughout the country on the first allocation did not get one single tin of paint, which would have meant that departments would have been closed. That was put right, but that sort of thing can happen indefinitely. There will be a scramble for licences, all the backstairs methods of bringing influence to hear to secure the necessary licences and permits, so that those who got them would have exclusive rights to dispose of certain stocks and all the other traders would be out of stocks presumably. In the interests of equity as well as in the interests of the good name of this House, I think the Government should look at this type of legislation and give us something much more definite and make it much more clear what can and cannot be done under Regulations, before this House is asked to give a Bill of this type a Second Reading.
§ Sir Edward Campbell (Bromley)
I have listened to all the speeches, and it is a remarkable thing that so many Members seem to accuse every trader of being dishonest. [Interruption.] Every speech I have heard—and Member will only have to read Hansard to-morrow—has accused traders of being dishonest.
§ Mr. Woods
If anything I have said has given that impression, I am sorry; it was quite unintentional. I tried as well as I could to pay my tribute to the average 611 honesty of the average British trader of all time. They are all up against difficult problems and are trying to play the game. The whole position is complicated by a small number of people not normally in the trading business who come in, get hold of stocks in short supply and bring discredit on the whole industry with which they are not normally associated.
§ Sir E. Campbell
I am glad the hon. Member rather changed the tone of his speech. I maintain that the majority of traders are very honest, [HON. MEMBERS: "We agree."] I am very glad that everybody agrees. In view of the fact that we all agree, I cannot see why hon. Members do not allow the passage of this Bill which my hon. and gallant Friend has explained to us as being necessary owing to the war. We all know that there are certain communities who need certain things more than other communities, and the Board of Trade are endeavouring to see that those people who need the things most should be those who get them. [An HON. MEMBER: "This does not do it."] I maintain that though it cannot be all we should wish, it is drafted to the best of the ability of those in charge of this Department, and therefore I heartily support it, but I do not wish, which I am perfectly sure will be the case, that the criticism of this Bill should tend to make the traders think that the House of Commons does not think as highly of them as they should be thought of.
Mr. Mcsser (Tottenham, South)
The Bill does not do what the last speaker says. I do not intend to cast any reflection on the traders at all in what I shall say. It is quite an unfair responsibility to put on them. Take medical supplies, for instance. We have to leave it to the shopkeepers to determine who is the one who more particularly needs the medical requirements. From that standpoint alone, I think it is wrong. When you once start on legislation of this description, where does it lead us? You cannot leave this to just one section. It means that you are setting a precedent. What you are doing in fact is to remove a measure of control which has protected the people where there have been goods. People have been entitled to have them. What is going to happen now is that the shopkeepers are almost bound to study to 612 whom they are going to supply these goods, and because of that discrimination that cannot help being unjust. In this instance the Bill will do not good but harm.
§ Mr. Hubert Beaumont (Batley and Morley)
This Bill has not had the enthusiastic reception which the Parliamentary Secretary had hoped. It seems that this Bill simply legalises preferential treatment. This Bill may make the cure worse than the disease itself, and it does not seem to meet the point. I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary this: A certain retailer receives a supply of, say, thermos flasks on condition that he supplies them to a certain category of people. The retailer does not carry out that obligation, and the Parliamentary Secretary says that the remedy will then he for the manufacturer or wholesaler to refuse him any additional supplies. But what is to prevent another manufacturer or wholesaler who has been endeavouring in the past to get the custom of this particular retailer himself supplying the retailer who may have committed an offence? It does not seem to me that the Bill meets the case. It is perfectly true that there are a number of articles in short supply, and there are a number of people in greater need of them than is any other section of the community. That being so, it is up to the Board of Trade to devise some system whereby the onus is not to be placed upon the trader himself. It is quite unfair to make the trader responsible for incurring the displeasure of his customers. The trader at the present time can say, "Yes" or "No", as it should be. I think we should have some measure which would make it illegal for the trader to supply anything to anybody of this particular kind unless they actually come within the category. I suggest that the Parliamentary Secretary may think it wise to take back this Bill for further consideration, and if he can come to the House with a Bill which will actually meet the point, he will not get the frigid reception which he has met to-day but a warm welcome.
§ Mr. Montague
May I stress that point, as to whether the hon. and gallant Gentleman will take back the Bill and reconsider it? We do not wish to force a Division, but it does seem that there will be a considerable measure of opposition.
§ Mr. Levy (Elland)
We have had many discussions regarding bureaucracy. If ever there was a case where bureaucracy has run wild, this is the case. So far as I am concerned, I think that this Bill ought to be withdrawn. It does not make sense. It is playing into the hands of the bureaucracy. It is undoubtedly not in the best interests of the country, whether shopkeepers or the general community. I only rise to say that, so far as I am concerned, if this Bill goes to a Division, I shall be bound to vote against it.
§ Captain Waterhouse
If I may have the permission of the House to make a few remarks in answer to this Debate, I should like first to express some regret that I was at a disadvantage in that many hon. Members who have since criticised this short Measure were not able to be in the House when I was doing my best to explain it. Really a great deal too much has been read into it, and it is a case of great expectations with a vengeance. Almost every Member of the House who has spoken has said what it has not done. It does not control the sale of alcoholic ginger wine; it does not control the price of whisky; it does not do a host of things; but I did in a very humble way speak of it as being a simple and rather humble Bill. It is designed with one object and one object only, a permissive and not a restrictive object. It seemed to me that some Members, for example, the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Woods), got quite a wrong impression. He asked why I came to the House in the fifth year of the war asking for powers. That is precisely what I am not doing. I am making some move towards smaller powers, surrendering powers. I am one of those who do not want to see increased powers of trade direction. I trust the traders of this country, and I am amazed to find how little trust is placed in the traders of the country by many of those who profess to be their friends. From what has been heard, one would think one was dealing with the greatest lot of crooks let out of Brixton. They are not. It might be thought that every shop had more under the counter than on it, that every trader was out to do any honest purchaser out of the right to buy what he has in the shop. That is not so.
The hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) unfortunately used the 614 phrase "black market" in opening his remarks. Otherwise his remarks were some of the few friendly remarks on the Bill. To use the term "black market" in this connection is entirely a misnomer. There is no question of black market in reserving certain things for those who most need them. "Black marketeer" is as foul a phrase as you can use to anybody in time of war. They are condemned from every section of the trade and every section of the public. Here we are asking the honest traders to give us their help and collaboration. We can if we like—I think hon. Members who were not able to be here earlier may have failed to take this point—restrict the sale of anything under the Defence Regulations, to permit holders, and we do that in a good number of cases, but there are cases in which the permit system is tar too narrow. If under the permit system a man wants to be dishonest and sells a thing by the back door, he can do it unless he happens to be caught. With the best will in the world—and thank goodness we have not the will—we have not a policeman outside the back door of every trader; we trust them. We have the power when we like to issue permits to stop the sale of anything except under permit. We use that when necessary. There are many other cases when this is not necessary, but where we do want to give the trader discretion to give priority to certain classes of customer.
We desire to say to the trader, "Will you keep certain things for certain people? When you think you have enough—you know your customers and your district—you can sell to other customers as well," and in such a case my hon. Friend might come in for a hot-water bottle, because there was a sufficient number about. It is not unreasonable to say that we will trust the traders with this power. When my hon. Friend talked about an increase of bureaucracy, he must have completely misunderstood the whole purport and intention of the Bill. It is giving discretion to those whom we think are worthy of it.
§ Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to. Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for the next Sitting Day.—[Captain McEwen.]