HC Deb 04 December 1946 vol 431 cc465-76

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Sidney Shephard (Newark)

For some hours now we have been discussing control over money. For the next few minutes I want to speak about another form of control, equally important, that over ex-Servicemen. I think that almost every hon. Member of this House has, at one time or another, received complaints from an ex-Serviceman who has tried to establish himself without success in a business of his own. In fact, on more than one occasion, individual cases have been brought up in this House. But tonight I want to deal with this grievance in a general way, and not as applying either to any particular Ministry or any particular individual. Although the Parliamen- tary Secretary to the Board of Trade is to reply, I hope he will appreciate that my purpose in bringing this matter forward is not to elicit an explanation as to the action his Department takes, but to try to find out what is the Government's attitude towards the principle that an ex-Serviceman should be able to set up in business for himself, whatever that business may be.

During the war, many thousands of these men planned that, when they were demobilised, they would come home and launch out for themselves. In point of fact, I think that I am right in saying that they were never warned while they were in the Services that they would not be able to do so. Most of them are now back, but very few have succeeded in getting permission to start up for themselves. I know that there are exceptions. For instance, there are the disabled men, in respect of whom I give full marks to all the Ministries concerned. They have done their very best to give these men every facility and to encourage them to establish themselves. But I am not dealing with the disabled tonight; I am dealing with the ordinary ex-Serviceman.

I will give one or two examples to illustrate my point. Let us take the case of the man who wants to start up as a cabinet maker. He may have been a skilled craftsman and quite capable of making a success of his venture. To get his timber he needs a licence, so he applies to the Timber Control. The answer, of course, is, "We are very sorry. We are very short of timber, so you cannot have a licence." Therefore, that man is condemned to go on working for someone else. Take another case, a very humble one, the man who wants to open a fried fish and chip shop. There are many thousands of men who do. I know of the case of a disabled man being refused a licence on the ground that there is an insufficiency of fats. May I quote just one more? The man who wants to start as a journeyman builder has to get a licence from the Ministry of Works. There, again, he receives the same answer, "Shortage of materials prevents us giving you a licence."

One could, of course, go on giving examples covering almost every trade and every branch of industry. I think it is acknowledged that, broadly speaking, the restriction, or prohibition—call it what you will, Mr. Deputy-Speaker—applies to the whole field of trade, industry and distribution. I am certain that no hon. Member of this House wants to encourage an ex-Serviceman to set up in business unless he has a reasonable chance of success. We do not want to see him put his savings or his gratuity into a business which is likely to lead to failure. We can all remember what happened after the first world war, and the human tragedies— and they were tragedies—which occurred. Many ex-Servicemen became the prey of sharks; many of them started up with no experience and very little capital, and, of course, as a rule they lost their money. But today there are many cases of ex-Servicemen with the capital and the experience who, if allowed to launch out for themselves, would undoubtedly make a success of their ventures. Who knows how many budding Nuffields there may be who are at present kicking their heels, waiting for the opportunity?

It seems to me that Government Departments have laid down three arbitrary rules covering the granting of these licences and permits. In the case of a man wanting to open a shop, consumer need plus an availability of supplies appears to be the deciding factor. In the case of a man wanting to set up in a trade or manufacturing industry, it is the supply position of the materials which governs the decision. In the case of a man wanting to start as a merchant, the decision is dependent on whether, in the view of the Ministry, the number of merchants already established in the business are capable of dealing with the business available. Whatever the business, there seems to be very good reason from the point of view of the Ministry why the man should not be allowed to start. Surely, with these ex-Servicemen other factors should be taken into account? The war has been over 18 months now; many of these men are getting on for middle age, and unless they start now they never will start. I think we all know that the older we are the less risks we take. Surely, they are entitled to know where they stand, and for how long these prohibitions and restrictions will be in force?

I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary three questions, and I hope he will give me straight replies, because, if he does, it will either allay the suspicions of the ex-Servicemen, or it will comfort them. The first question is: Is it the policy of the Government that there shall be no new competition in trade and industry while these shortages exist? In other words, is the closed shop principle to be applied to those already existing? The second is: Have these men to wait until controls and licences are removed before they can start? The third and last point is, Is the ex-Serviceman to get any preference over the civilian, all other things being equal?

This is not a political matter, and I hope hon. Members on all sides of the House will support this plea. We owe these men a debt, and I for one want to see it repaid. If I may, I will just quote these words said by Theodore Roosevelt after the first world war: A man who is good enough to fight for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards. That is not more than any man expects; not less than that which we must give.

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Leslie (Sedgefield)

With much of what the hon. Gentleman the Member for Newark (Mr. Shephard) has said I think we can all agree, and it is our duty to do our best to assist those who fought for us in the late war. But I hope the Minister will be very careful in the granting of licences, and take into careful consideration the needs of a district. Those of us who have had experience of the distributive trades know what happened after the first world war. Many ex-Servicemen were cajoled into taking over businesses for which they had no training and no experience. What was the result? Shops were opened all over the country, entering into competition with existing traders. The ex-Servicemen, in the necessity of making a living, simply kept open from early morning until dewy eve seven days a week. They broke all the Shops Acts, and when the Sunday Trading (Restrictions) Bill was introduced they were its severest opponents. Think what it meant to those men. We know that hundreds of them lost their all. They became insolvent because they were unable to compete with the existing traders who knew the business and had been trained for it. Therefore, we must be very careful that we do not do as we did after the first world war.

What is really wanted for the ex-Servicemen, in their best interests, is training in productive industries, because, as a matter of fact, there are far too many shops. A committee of the distributive trades showed that there were far too many shops, and that in some towns there was a shop for every 30 of the population. Well, it is obvious that that is uneconomic, and it simply means bankruptcy sooner or later. Therefore, I say to the Minister that he must exercise very extreme care before he grants licences to open any more shops.

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)

I am sure we all have sympathy with the cases where these men are not getting their licences because the Ministeries are watching over their welfare. But that is not always the case. Only this morning I replied to a young man who joined up in 1939. He was the son of a butcher having a big business in a good sized town. This young man was promised by his father that he should have a meat business when he became 21. He has lost seven years of the best part of his life, and he now wants to start a manufacturing meat business in this town. The shop is available; his father's experience is available; there is no question of this young man going into a business and losing his money. The fact remains he is refused the licence, and that, I think, is the sort of case my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Shephard) had in mind when he opened this Debate. I hope that the Ministeries concerned with granting licences will give every consideration to these young men who have lost the best part of their lives fighting for their country.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Shurmer (Birmingham, Sparkbrook):

I am glad this matter has been brought forward tonight. I agree with the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Leslie) who raised the question regarding the grant of licences. We all know what happened after the last war when private enterprise built any number of shops and sold them to people; and we know what happened during the great slump. What I want to emphasise is that the regional offices are not too keen to help ex-Service-men who have had businesses before the war in the great towns and cities, and whose businesses, unfortunately, have been bombed, so that they have to find premises in another district.

Let me quote one experience, and I have been on this case now for nearly five months. It concerns a man who, unfortunately, is suffering from a disease from which he may at any time drop down dead. It is not attributable to war service, although he served for quite a long period during this war. He was a boot repairer, and his whole house and premises in a certain district in Birmingham were bombed. He came back and started in another district, and all that he can get from the Ministry, despite the fact that he is not able to carry on at work for a whole week—though people are sympathetic and are prepared to give him shoe-mending to do—is the reply that the consumer need in that district is sufficiently met. I want to suggest that, even if the consumer need in that district was sufficiently met during the war period, there are now hundreds and hundreds of men who have come back from the war. What is wanted is a little less red tape in the regional offices, so that these men can start in business. I reiterate that I do not want to see a wholesale starting of businesses such as happened after the last war, but I do think we need to relax the restrictions a little for those ex-Servicemen who are genuinely able to open a business and can prove that such a business will flourish in the district where they want to open.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Gammans (Hornsey)

I want to make a protest against this ridiculous phrase "consumer need." It is used so often when an ex-Serviceman applies for a licence to drive and to own a hired car. He buys the car, and then he is told that there is no consumer need. What does it mean in the end? It means that some temporary civil servant, very often a man who has been a conspicuous failure in everything he has undertaken, turns round and advises some committee which is not on the spot that there are enough taxis there already, What does he know about it? In the old days we used to test consumer need in a far more practical and sensible way. If there was consumer need, a man got on and made money; if there was not, he went bust. I know that is a rough and ready way of doing it, but it is a far more accurate and sensible way than for some civil servant to sit down and say there is no consumer need. The time has come when the ex-Serviceman should at least be given the liberty of risking his own money and his own future in some venture which he is satisfied is likely to succeed. At any rate, I think the vast majority of them would far sooner submit to that acid test than to the test of some civil servant sitting in an office. Therefore, I hope the time is not far distant when we shall abandon this ridiculous phrase "consumer need," and get back to some sense.

10.19 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Belcher)

I am very grateful to the hon. Member who raised this issue for the brevity and the reasonable nature of his statement. First, I should like to state our general attitude towards this problem. Over the range of consumer goods covered by the Board of Trade, our attitude to requests for help from ex-Servicemen is generally sympathetic, particularly in the case of disabled ex-Servicemen. In the case of some industries which were severely concentrated during the war or were restricted in their activities, and where established manufacturers are still required to limit the supplies which they may make to the home market, we still refuse licences to newcomers, even when they are ex-Servicemen, so far as home trade is concerned, although we allow all newcomers to enter the industry and supply unrestrictedly for export, except in the case of furniture. Even in these industries, we temper our attitude in certain cases, for instance, where ex-Servicemen desire to set up in a Development Area. In such a case we would allow him a quota for home trade.

Our limiting factor all the time is the raw material situation. The hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Shephard) seemed to me to imply that he realised that our attitude was very largely determined by the supply of raw materials. He mentioned a specific case, that of the cabinet-maker who was unable to obtain a licence to acquire timber. Every hon. Member knows perfectly well that timber is in short supply, and that we have recently had to restrict the supply to established manufacturers. What in fact is being asked for, when it is suggested that we should give to newcomers to the cabinet-making industry licences to acquire timber? It is being suggested that we should take, from already restricted and insufficient supplies to established manufacturers, timber which they require, thereby diminishing still further the supply available to them. I suggest it is quite possible that the estab- lished manufacturers, who would be deprived still further of their raw materials, might themselves be ex-Service-men or have ex-Servicemen in their employment, who might lose their jobs, or go on short time as a result of further restrictions on timber supply. Similarly, with a man who wishes to set up a fish-frying business, the limitation is not the shortage of fish, but the shortage of fats. Despite all efforts of the Government Departments concerned to remedy the shortage, there is not sufficient fats to give to those people who are already engaged in the business to keep them going at full strength.

Mr. Jennings (Sheffield, Hallam)

The Government have just given power to local authorities throughout the country to open British Restaurants.

Mr. Belcher

I suggest that that is entirely outside the point. Whether or not these British Restaurants, which are already established, will in the future consume more fats than in the past, I do not know. My point is, and hon. Members opposite know it to be perfectly true, that established fish fryers cannot obtain enough fats to meet the demands they are called upon to supply, and would like to supply. To admit without restriction ex-Servicemen to that trade, would only have the effect of further diminishing the supplies available to those people already trying to make a living in it. I suggest that not only would that be against the public interest, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Leslie) intimated, it would certainly be against the interests of the newcomers—we had experience of that after the first world war. It would be indicating a lack of responsibility on the part of this Government, if we were to throw open all these trades where raw materials are in short supply, to anyone who has served in His Majesty's Forces who thinks he might have an opportunity to make a living. The hon. Member mentioned a third instance, which was the case of a man who wished to go into the building trade. While there was a severe restriction in granting licences to people wishing to go into the trade, I would point out that since March, 1946, all applications for licences as registered builders have been granted, provided that a certificate previously issued had not been revoked or cancelled.

Mr. Sidney Shephard

We are talking about ex-Servicemen wanting to start for the first time.

Mr. Belcher

There has been no restriction since March, 1946, on people wishing to enter the building trade applying for licences, and, in fact, since June, 1946, out of the present total of 169,000 building licences extant, some 30,000 new contractors have entered the market. There is a total at present of 169,000, 30,000 of whom have entered since June, 1946, as new entrants under unrestricted licences' My hon. Friend the Member for Spark-brook (Mr. Shurmer) suggested there was a lack of sympathy in regional offices. I have not been aware of it. I freely confess it may be possible that, when an application is made to a busy regional office, some factor may be overlooked which subsequently is brought to the notice of a higher authority, and the thing is then put right. That may give cause for my hon. Friend to suggest that lack of sympathy exists in regional offices, but I have not been aware of it.

My hon. Friend cited the case of a man who wished to start a shoe-repairing business. That links up with what was said by the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Gammans). It is not that we wish to discourage people who want to go into shoe-repairing, or any other trade, just for the sake of discouraging them, or denying them the opportunity to make a fortune or "go bust." I think the tendency at the present moment would be in favour of their "going bust." I do not want to see that happen. It is simply that there is not enough shoe leather to go round, and we are compelled, in the interests of those who are already working in this industry, to have regard to whether or not a new need exists in a particular district. It would be absolute folly for us to grant indiscriminately licences to men who wish to become shoe repairers in districts where already there is an adequate service—

Mr. Gammans

How is that known?

Mr. Belcher

—thereby, possibly, denying to people who wish to start business in an area where there is an inadequate service the opportunity of acquiring raw material.

Mr. Gammans

How does the Board of Trade know?

Mr. Belcher

Of course, we know.

Mr. Gammans


Mr. Belcher

Because officers of the Board of Trade go into the district, they find out how many shops there are repairing shoes in that district, they know the population, they ascertain how long it takes for shoe repairs to be done, and they present a report to the issuing officer which indicates whether or not a licence ought to be granted. I assure the hon. Gentleman that these things are not done in a haphazard fashion, but with regard to the facts. I have only time to reply as quickly as I can to the three questions asked by the hon. Member who opened the Debate. He asked, Is there to be no new competition in trade and industry, is the closed shop principle to remain and apply only to those already established, thus shutting out ex-Servicemen? The answer is, "No, not precisely in those terms." I have indicated that the ex-Serviceman is admitted where it is felt that a need for his services exists, and the granting of a licence to him will not interfere with those already established in business.

Secondly, he asked whether these men have to wait until controls and licences are removed. They do not have to wait now, since, where there is a case to be made out on raw material grounds, or on grounds of consumer need, they get their licence, They do not have to wait until controls and licences are removed. Thirdly, he asked whether they have to wait until all shortages disappear before licences become necessary. The answer is "Yes." The announced policy of the Government is to retain controls over distribution and prices, and licences of all kinds, until the plenitude of raw materials and goods makes it unnecessary to license, to control and to ration in the interests both of the people who are manufacturing and selling and those who are buying—in other words, the consumers. This policy is a deliberate policy of holding back in the interests of producer, distributor and consumer until there is an ample supply of the goods and raw materials which will make it unnecessary for the controls and the licences to remain. They are not there because of any particular love for licensing and controlling on the part of His Majesty's Ministers. They are to protect the people of this country against the thing which every hon. Member knows would happen if those controls were re- laxed. It is in the interests of the ex-Serviceman himself, and in the interests of the nation—[An HON. MEMBER: "He does not think so"] He may not think so, but he may not be the best judge of his own cause.

Sir Wavell Wakefield (St. Marylebone)


Mr. Belcher

The hon. Member for Hornsey suggested that the alternative before the ex-Serviceman was to make a fortune or "go bust." In most cases he would "go bust," and we prefer not to take the chance of allowing these men, who come out of the Forces with bright ideas in their heads, to "go bust." It is far better that they should carry on as they are now.

It being Half-past Ten o'Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.