HC Deb 29 April 1948 vol 450 cc739-65

10.34 p.m.

Mr. David Eccles (Chippenham)

I beg to move: That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 8th March, 1948, entitled the Control of Willow Rods and Willow Sticks Order, 1948 (S.I., 1948, No. 461), a copy of which was presented on 9th March, be annulled. This order imposes a system of controlled marketing and maximum prices on willow rods and sticks. The House will know that these willows are mainly used for the manufacture of baskets, and it is not possible to see the effect of the order unless one considers the industry as a whole, from the growing of the willows right to the making of the baskets. If the effect of the order were to bring stability into this ancient industry—I believe it goes back 3,000 years—then I do not think anyone would have any quarrel with it. But I think I can show the House that nothing of the kind is going to take place. On the contrary, the only certain effect of this order is to give to a handful of merchants the power to form a ring. If they use that power, they will have all the growers of willows dancing to their tune.

I must give the House a brief description of this industry, which is of a peculiar structure and carried on by persons who perform distinct functions. There are, first of all, the general run of the growers of willows, many of whom are ordinary farmers, who once a year sell off their crops of willows in the green or unpeeled state. Then there are the men called grower-managers. They, I believe, number several hundreds, and they are the backbone of this industry. They grow a quantity of willows, but they also buy acreages of willows at auction, or by private treaty, cut them, and prepare them for sale to merchants and manufacturers. I would call the attention of the House to these grower-managers, because they are the people who are up against this order. Then there are two classes of merchant in the industry. There are those called merchant-growers, who grow a considerable quantity of willows, but also buy and sell willows; and then there are the merchants pure and simple.

Section 2 (1) of the order provides that: No person shall acquire any controlled goods from a grower except under the authority of a licence. The question arises who is going to get a licence from the Board of Trade which will enable him to be one of the exclusive buyers of willows in the future? We do not know from the order, but we have it on the authority of the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins), who is such a prominent figure in this industry, who said, speaking in Somerset, that the intention of the Board of Trade was to grant these licences only to the merchant-growers and the merchants. I do not know whether the Minister is going to confirm that statement; but that is the suspicion in Somerset. If that is actually the case, there will be only a small number of licensed dealers in willows, possibly not more than 15. It is understandable, therefore, that all those men who from time immemorial have been dealing in this product, should be suspicious that so small a ring of licensed dealers might fix the price and hold them to ransom. In future they will have to go to one of these licensed merchants to get any willows for preparation for the market.

What would be the defence for imposing such a very much tighter marketing control than ever was necessary during the war? I think the defence must be—again taking my line from the speeches of the hon. Member for Taunton, made in the country—that there have been black market transactions in willows which it would be in the public interest to stop by this method of tightly controlling the market. I expect the Minister will say that as the maximum prices in the schedule of this order are considerably higher than the old maximum prices, the growers ought to be content to submit to control in return for this generosity in raising the maximum prices. I think that must be the essence of the argument. Of course, the first thing to inquire is whether the maximum prices in the order are going to operate, or are they going to be only paper prices. If they are only to be paper prices, what is the excuse for putting the trade into this straitjacket? What really determines the prices? What determines them in default of a guarantee of the share of the British market is the volume of imports. At present it is much more a matter of basket imports than of willows. Nothing in this order is going to make these maximum prices operate if a stream of imported goods come in.

It would be interesting to look for a few moments at imports. As the House well knows, the import of willows and baskets during the war became exceedingly expensive because they could not be obtained from European countries, and had to be got at high prices from the Argentine and other South American countries. The prices rose sharply, and everyone made money. I must pay a tribute—a most sincere tribute—to that successful capitalist, the hon. Member for Taunton, who welded together both sides of the industry during the war into a well-knit and profitable undertaking. Those of us who worked in the Ministry of Production knew well that that was so.

At the end of the war it was clear that the industry expected a recession such as there was after the first world war, and a year ago we find the hon. Gentleman asking the Minister of Agriculture to put willows in the First Schedule of the Agriculture Act. The Minister of Agriculture, of course, did not put them in the First Schedule, and the point will not be lost on any of my hon. Friends who are interested in the domestic market of agricultural products when imports begin to come in. Maximum prices are no good unless they are backed up with a guaranteed share of the British market. Those who support the order are doubtlessly going to tell us about shortage of foreign exchange and the fact that, owing to our difficulty in getting enough money to buy the things we want from hard currency countries, we cannot get as many willows as formerly from the Argentine. That is true at present, but the fact is that the import of baskets has just as much effect as the import of willows. This is a rather pertinent question because the basket trade is very short of orders at the present time. In this connection, I do not mean those domestic baskets, which are subject to purchase tax; I am talking about industrial baskets—butchers' baskets, bakers' baskets, and laundrymen's hampers and so on—which do not attract Purchase Tax. These are becoming difficult to sell at our present prices, and it is public demand that is going to govern the prices over a period for which willows can be sold.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton because he is not only president of the National Willow Growers' Association, but also chairman of the National Basket and Willow Trades Advisory Committee. I congratulate him because there is nothing I like more than successful capitalism. Under his second organisation, quotas are given to all the basket makers. He is going to tell us that there is a shortage of willows, and the maximum prices will operate because in the present period he has had to cut the supply of willows to the basket manufacturers to 75 per cent. of their quota.

That looks like evidence of a shortage. I am going to ask him to assure us that the basket manufacturers have enough orders on hand to absorb that 75 per cent. I have evidence to show that they have not, and that is a cardinal point. Why does the hon. Gentleman want this order? I am going to read to the House a short quotation from his speech at Stoke St. Gregory at the end of last month. There he is reported to have said: We can no longer tolerate what has been going on in Somerset for the last 18 months—people going to sales and buying at exorbitant prices willows which are never seen again; and the cutting down from 12,000 bundles a quarter to about 2,000 bundles a quarter the willows that went to proper legitimate quota holders. What are these proper, legitimate quotas? The National Basket and Willow Trades Advisory Committee, grants or withholds quotas. It even prevents an experienced basket-maker from getting a quota and going back into the trade. I read a letter recently from the hon. Gentleman refusing such a quota. There is no statutory authority for the granting of quotas, or for withholding them. I ask him to tell us under what statutory authority he grants or withholds such quotas? He talks of legitimate quotas, but there are no such things. What has really been happening is that the willow growers have grown tired of selling willows through this organisation and have begun dealing with the basket manufacturers direct. That is why the number of bundles has dropped from 12,000 to 2,000. Now the hon. Gentleman goes to the Board of Trade to get this order so that all willows will have to pass through his organisation under statutory authority.

I must now put to the Minister who is going to reply questions which will clear this up. Will the Parliamentary Secretary be good enough to tell us when this order was first published, to whom did the Board of Trade intend to give the exclusive licences to buy and sell willows? And I ask him, whatever his original intention might have been, to tell us to whom he intends to give them now. To the growers' managers? If not, then he is not going to dispel the suspicion, and it is more than a suspicion, that a dozen or 15 merchants will get the licences, and under an efficient control they will be able to hold the whole of the growing trade to ransom. Who did the Parliamentary Secretary believe was going to benefit by this order? Who are the parties to the industry? There is the public who buys the baskets. What good will it do the public? The public are on strike against the high prices, and are hoping that the small imports from Holland may be increased. Is the Minister prepared to tell us the policy of the Board of Trade is to shut out the imports of baskets from soft currency areas? There is nothing relevant in this order for the buyers of baskets, and I hope the Board of Trade are not going to shut out baskets from all quarters.

What about the willow growers and the basket makers? Are they going to benefit under this order? The extraordinary thing is that we have no means of telling. All that we know is that the power to monopolise prices is put into the hands of a few men and we also know that these people have interests both in willow growing and in basket making. How can we tell whether they are going to use the powers in this order to keep up the prices for willow growing, or keep them down for basket making? The House ought not to give a statutory power to a few men who can thereafter exercise it as it suits the interests of their trade.

I would remind hon. Members that last week we gave on all sides of the House a sincere welcome to the Monopolies Bill. What was the purpose of this Bill? It was to detect and defeat restrictive practices and we all join in hoping that it will be a success. Now we are discussing an order which creates restrictive practices in an industry stretching from willow growing to basket making, and I can only suggest that if the House will not throw this order out—which we ought to do if we were sincere in our reception of the Monopoly Bill—then we will be accused of gross insincerity. Either we support the Monopolies Bill and then throw this out, or we were not sincere in our support of the Bill. Is there anyone who is certainly going to benefit from this order except those who get the licences? As the order does not tell us who are going to get the licences and what are they going to do with them, it should be annulled.

10.52 p.m.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

I beg to second the Motion.

I feel that I should first confess to the House that I have some interest in this matter. I am not, apparently, like an hon. Member or hon. Members round Taunton way, one of the great monopolistic buyers or sellers. I am just a humble person like my predecessors who have been accustomed from time to time to sell just a few bundles of willows grown on small patches of ground. I am one of a good many people in the West Country who have devoted suitable patches of ground to this purpose from time immemorial, and who sell willows, not so much for basket making as for making crab and lobster pots for the fishermen. As far as I can understand it, as I look at the first part of this order, it says: No person shall acquire any controlled goods from a grower except under the authority of a licence issue. … No grower shall supply any controlled goods otherwise than to a person who is authorised to acquire controlled goods by a licence. … In the first place, is this going to be enforced on people scattered over Cornwall or the West Country away from the Taunton area, who have these willows? Must we really have a licence? Is the farmer with a corner in which there are a few willows required to have a licence when a fisherman comes along and asks him for a few bundles? Have both parties to get a licence? That is how I read this order. If I require a licence to supply each one of the persons who comes along and asks me for a few bundles of willows it is just farcical. It is not worth the work of entering into the details of obtaining a licence for that purpose.

My hon. Friend who moved the Prayer about this order referred to an ancient trade going back thousands of years. There are indeed all round the coasts of Britain many places where willows are grown—very often almost accidentally grown—and where they are sold for various purposes, including sometimes the use of basket-makers. Although something may be necessary in the form of an order, the House surely cannot accept anything so absurd as a proposal to make every single fisherman, whenever he gets a bundle of willows or goes back to ask for another bundle, write all the information on a licence form, on both sides. Are the Department going to make hundreds, even thousands of fishermen fill in forms for fresh licences? Are they also going to have the completely ridiculous position as revealed in the definition of "barter" at the top of page 3 of the order? Suppose a fisherman goes to a farmer and says, "I am short of cash; I will give you half a dozen mackerel if you let me have a bundle of willows?" Are they going to prosecute him? Are they going to send them both to gaol for asking that sort of thing?

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade has frequently been down in my part of the country. I do not know whether other right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Government Front Bench have been down to Torquay lately or whether they know that part of the country at all well. But they should know that we are subject in the country areas to persecutions of this kind, which make life almost intolerable and which are preventing the growing of all sorts of things which would help us along. It has given me great pleasure to second the Motion, not from the big growers' or the big consumers' point of view, but because I think this matter should be put before the House, especially as this order bears on the ordinary lives of the people who have not the means or the time to waste in filling up forms, which this order apparently commands them to do.

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Collins (Taunton)

It is scarcely necessary for me to declare my interest in this matter because it has been done very kindly by the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles), but I do think I ought to say in confirmation that I am President of the National Willow Growers' Association and Chairman of the National Basket and Willow Trades Advisory Committee. Might I say that the latter body comprises representatives of the basket manufacturers, of the blind workshops, of the willow growers, of the willow merchants and of the Worshipful Company of Basket-makers, and all these organisations completely approve the order we are now discussing, just as they approved the orders which preceded it during the war years. I want to point out that the present order embodies precisely all the provisions of the previous orders, with the main addition that at the present time under this order it is necessary for the grower to sell and sell only to the merchant.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chippenham for mentioning one or two points arising out of this order. Although we on this side of the House are accustomed to hon. Members opposite moving annulment Prayers without any justification, having heard the hon. Member's speech, I now realise that the evidence upon which he has based his conclusions is even more fantastic than is usually the case. He drew a picture of a ring of merchants grinding the lives out of small and worthy growers. He referred to a speech of mine, when I spoke to the Willow Growers' Association about this order. About 95 per cent. of the willow growers of Somerset are members of the Association, and most were present when I spoke. They included a number of the small managers to whom reference has been made. They unanimously approved and supported this order, but they made the point that means should be devised whereby small managers could be enabled to buy crops of willows on giving an undertaking to sell to merchants at a controlled price. There is no reason why, under this order, such an arrangement should not be made, and all the people concerned treated with complete justice.

It was rightly said that there could be no justification for an order of this kind, if it could be shown that, owing to lack of demand or for some other reason, maximum prices were unlikely to be realised. The hon. Member mentioned the unemployment caused by imports, and said that the basket industry was short of orders. But for a very small section of the trade, for reasons entirely unconnected with basket or willow imports, the basket trade is still very busy indeed and very full of orders. His informers must be very inefficient basket makers if they cannot get orders.

I should like to give some figures on this matter of imports. The total imports in the first quarter of this year, from January to March, amounted to the negligible amount of £6,500, as compared with an approximate home output of over £3 million in a year. And so, the volume of imports is less than i per cent, of the total home production. That is hardly likely seriously to affect employment in this country. I inquired further into this matter to see how these imports were going to affect employment, because if there is no demand for our baskets, one would assume that our basket makers would be unemployed. To 15th March, throughout the length and breadth of the country, there were precisely 35 basket makers unemployed out of a total of more than 7,000. In other words, less than one half of 1 per cent. of the basket makers in the country are unemployed, compared with something like 20 per cent. when the Conservative Party were in power and practically ruined the basket industry. One half of 1 per cent. is less than the average of unemployment throughout the country. I think that that is a complete answer to the ridiculous statements, both in regard to the volume of imports and to the basket industry being short of orders, and there being unemployment.

The hon. Member made some reference to domestic baskets. It is very likely that, owing to the incidence of the Purchase Tax, there will be some unemployment, particularly among blind workers. If he has observed the Order Paper he will see an Amendment down in my name, and I hope to get some success in the matter which will relieve the anxiety of such unemployment. The hon. Member asked, "Who will benefit from this order?" I will tell him. There are more than 7,000 basket makers in this industry, and more than 4,000 of that number are blind or disabled. It is for these workers that we are insisting, in a time of shortage far more acute that it was during the war, on a continuance of controlled distribution. Our normal consumption of willows is 5,000 tons a year. During the war 3,000 tons of that came from the Argentine, which was the only source of foreign supply, and 2,000 tons was processed from the home crop. In December, 1947, we were informed by the Board of Trade that for currency reasons imports from the Argentine would have to be curtailed to 700 tons. We have secured 500 tons from Europe, and we hope to reproduce this year 1,500 tons of home processed willows. That will be in all 2,700 tons against a normal requirement of 5,000 tons.

Yet the hon. Member suggests, first, that we shall have enough; and secondly, that the maximum prices are ineffective because the demand will not be there. I can give further evidence on this point. On Monday I caused inquiries to be made in Somerset about the number of unfulfilled orders, and I find that there were no fewer than 23,000 bundles ordered, but not delivered. The hon. Member quoted me as saying that owing to the black market, quotas had fallen from 12,000 to 2,000 bundles a month—precisely because of the black market which this order is designed to stop, and will stop. The hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) spoke about his fishermen, some of whom are friends of mine, too, who had relied during the war on obtaining their willows through the advisory committee. His farmer friends who want to dispose of their willows will, under the terms of this order, have no trouble in disposing of them if they inform my committee.

Mr. C. Williams rose

Mr. Collins

If the hon. Member will permit me I shall be delighted to explain the reason for this particular control. In 1942 there was a requirement of airborne wicker panniers needed to supply forward troops in the field. It was so large that it absorbed the entire output of all the basket makers in the country. It was necessary to secure equitable distribution of willows, and it was suggested that a rigid control on the lines of the Timber Control should be instituted, but a suggestion was made that the committee of which I am chairman, and which is comprised of all the interests in the trade, should handle this matter. We were permitted to become, therefore, the sole importers and distributors of foreign willows. We also entered into a gentleman's agreement.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth)

Ha, ha.

Mr. Collins

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bournemouth (Mr. Bracken) would not understand what that means. We also entered into a gentleman's agreement with the willow growers, whereby, with no control at all, but voluntarily, they agreed to supply only orders which we assured them were required for this most vital purpose. They carried out that agreement to the letter. That was probably the most successful control, although a voluntary agreement, of any raw material. We came to the end of the war, and to the transfer from making war goods to making those for peace-time. Willows, as I have explained, were in far too short supply. We had to see that they went first for essential requirements; secondly, for the important requirement of providing work for blind and disabled workers who would have otherwise become unemployed or under-employed; and, third, that any residue should be fairly shared amongst anyone else in the industry. We also thought we had an obligation to the ex-Service men who wanted to return to the industry after the war. We had the same numbers in the industry and a diminished supply of raw material. We wanted to permit men coming back from the war to get into the trade. They have to get materials. It was decided that those already in the industry must make sacrifices in order to ensure that those men had a chance to return. They have all been given quotas. A thousand ex-Service men have returned to the industry. The number of basket businesses throughout the country has increased from 700 to 1,050, and 600 or 700 of these are very small businesses.

The hon. Member asked me, Who will benefit by this order? The people who will benefit by it are those who are in the industry, the small men who will not get their willow in any other way, the blind and disabled workers who rely completely on the supplies we send them. If any other proof were wanted by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite of the necessity for the order, I would mention that I have had telegrams from the National Association of Workshops for the Blind, which comprises all the workshops for the blind throughout the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. They ask me to oppose the annulment of this order because the order is in the best interests of the blind basket-makers. I have another telegram which reads: In view of the serious shortage of English grown willows I consider the Control of Willow Rods Order, 1948, should remain in force until such time as supplies become more plentiful. That was signed by George White, manager of the Basket Department of St. Dunstan's. Here is a telegram from the Willow Growers' Association: Urge you support Willow Rods Order Removal would mean chaos in the willow industry. I think that is a sufficient and an effective answer from the basket industry.

My family have been in the basket and willow industries for some 300 years. I have no financial axe to grind in this. I have worked for a good many years now, as the hon. Member said, in building up this industry, and in knitting it together. The willow growers had this experience after 1918. They did not have control then. Prices of their willows increased from 4s. a bundle to 30s. a bundle. They started planting beds after 1918. If the hon. Member for Chippenham, when he goes down to his constituency, will look out of the train window somewhere near Reading, he will see some of the melancholy monuments of the Tory neglect of the land, which ruined the willow growers and reduced their acreage from 9,000 acres to 2,000 acres. The hon. Member may not like it. I am dealing with the points he raised and I am giving the House the facts which, in view of the misrepresentations to which we have listened, should be given.

Mr. Eccles

I entirely agree with the hon. Member that the industry collapsed after the last war, but why? Because imports were allowed to come in. What agreement has he got from any Government Department to prevent that happening again? He has merely for the moment the fact that Argentine willows are not allowed in, and he pretends to the trade that this order is going to give stability. Nothing of the kind.

Mr. Collins

I agree that stability for the industry depends on the implementation of the Agriculture Act in so far as it applies to willows.

Mr. Eccles

It is not on the schedule.

Mr. Collins

It is not on the schedule, and other things like wool which hon. Members would like to see on the schedule are not there. I have urged willow growers over the last five years not to start planting beds immediately. It is a very expensive crop to grow, costing at least £100 an acre, and needs a big capital expenditure. But now I am sure that the assured future which they require is theirs, particularly under the measures which this Government have introduced.

The hon. Member knows what happened round about 1921. When the last war began, the willow growers themselves asked for controlled prices and the successive orders that have been passed since then have all been with controlled prices related to costs. That is at their own request. They have wanted the industry like this. The picture has been painted of old firms in the basket trade who cannot get a quota. There is not a single firm in the basket industry which was in the industry in 1944 or, if not in, then concerned with the Services; there is not anyone trained in a Government establishment, or anyone who wants willows for occupational therapy, who cannot get a supply. The whole point is that this structure depends on the continuance of the system that has been built up. Its continuance depends on an order of this kind, which can only be replaced by a very complicated rigid control, employing more civil servants—a matter which hon. Members opposite often deplore—while this control has been worked without any expenditure of public money or employment of extra officials.

Mr. Bracken

And by people financially interested in it.

Mr. Collins

The right hon. Member must think what he likes about that, but I can assure the House his thoughts will not be shared by anybody in the willow growing and basket industries. The hon. Member who moved the Motion is fully aware that this is true. I have given the House the facts. I say they are the complete answer to what has been said by the hon. Member for Chippenham. If hon. Members want to have blind and disabled workers unemployed or under-employed, if they want to drive out of business 400 to 500 ex-Service men who have come back to the industry and have been supplied with a quota and who depend entirely for their supplies on the continuance of the methods we have adopted, then they will vote against this Order. I hope that in view of the facts I have given—and they are the facts—the hon. Member will not press the Motion to a Division, but will withdraw it.

11.20 p.m.

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

May I begin by expressing my very great pleasure at seeing such an unusually large representation of the Opposition on an occasion of this kind. I am rather intrigued as to the reason for it. Obviously, this order that we have made at the Board of Trade is regarded as being a matter of some importance. The speech that has been made by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins) obviously has made it impossible for me to add very much to the case for this order. He has had a wide and intimate knowledge of the subject over a period of years, and he gave very great service during the years when his organising ability was responsible for clearing away many of the bottlenecks in the basket-making industry. That makes it all the more difficult for me to listen to interjections which suggest that my hon. Friend has interests other than those he should have in this matter. I am convinced that he is concerned only to do what he can for the industry and the country, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) shares that view.

The hon. Member for Chippenham suggested that I would plead in defence of this order that currency difficulties prevent the importation of the quantity of willows which otherwise we might import. That is true. In the years before the war, we had to supplement home production by importation from the Continent of Europe and from the Argentine. For obvious reasons, importation from the Continent was stopped during the war. It has been resumed to some extent, but only to a small extent compared with our imports before the war. For obvious currency reasons, we are not importing at present from the Argentine, and we shall have to be very careful about currency in future.

The hon. Member for Chippenham in an interjection, referred to this order not guaranteeing stability to the willow growers of this country, and recalled what happened after the first world war. He suggested that one of the reasons why, after the first world war, the willow-growing industry of this country lagged and lost its position was importation. He said that there was nothing in this order which would guarantee stability by preventing great imports of willow for basket-making in the future. Of course, there is nothing in this order to prevent the importation of willows for basket-making in the future. This order is designed to deal with the situation as it is now, and if at some future time it becomes necessary to take some other step, that can be taken. It seems to me irrelevant to bring into the question the importation of these things, when it is evident that the order is designed to deal with the present situation.

I pass now to the reasons why we have introduced this instrument, although I shall be more or less covering the ground already covered by the hon. Member for Taunton, who spoke, not as the Minister responsible for a Department, but as an individual who has had a great interest in this industry for a considerable time. We are not going to be deterred from asking a man who is prominent in a particular industry to carry out certain functions on behalf of an industry because he happens to be a Labour Party back-bencher.

Under the order there has been price control of willows since 1941, but until this present instrument, apart from the period mentioned by my hon. Friend, namely, the years 1943 to 1945, there has been no control of distribution. Since 1945, the association about which we have heard so much this evening—the National Basket and Willow Trades Advisory Committee, which represents all sections of the industry—has operated a voluntary allocation scheme. Why the hon. Member for Chippenham should single out this particular trade association for attack is something which I do not know. I am in touch with many trade associations whose practices are similar to those of this organisation, but we hear nothing of them. To return to my point, the willow growers and the importers were asked to make available for their quota scheme all their production and their imports. [Interruption.] It would be very nice if I could continue my speech without a sort of running commentary going on among right hon. and hon. Members opposite.

Captain Crookshank (Gainsborough) rose

Mr. Belcher

I am merely asking the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to have some manners so that I may concentrate on my remarks without being subject to the interruptions of a loud voice, designed to put me off my stroke.

Captain Crookshank

I must ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that remark. I was asking my right hon. Friend a question; I was not interrupting the hon. Gentleman. If there seemed to be an interruption, it is because the loudspeakers caused my voice to come across so loudly.

Mr. Belcher

I accept that it was due to the loudspeakers, but it did seem that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman was carrying on a conversation in loud tones. To continue, I will refer to the remarks about the black market. This reached such a stage that the reliable and reputable users of willows were finding it impossible to carry on. Because of the leakage into the black market, the unscrupulous basket-maker bought up all the willows he could lay his hands on, despite the statutorily controlled prices, and the decent man, the fellow prepared to play the game with the voluntary advisory committee, got far less than his fair share. We prosecuted some people, but by the time that the prosecution had taken place, most of the harm was done.

We came to the conclusion that this was a state of affairs which could not continue, and this instrument was made. It lays down maximum prices, which have since been advanced to allow for increased costs, and it compels growers to sell growing and cut willows only to licensed merchants. This appears to be one of the principal reasons for objection to this instrument, but licences have been granted to all established merchants, and I believe there are more licensed at the present moment than the number who were receiving supplies under the old condition of affairs. In fact, instead of this order being more monopolistic than anything preceding it, it is less monopolistic.

A most important feature of the provision is that growers can sell only to licensed merchants; that means that the grower-to-user sales—sales of a direct nature—are cut out. That cuts off immediately this black market which grew up, and which was a very serious matter for the kind of people mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton when he read out a telegram. The matter must have been one of urgency because one would not have telegrams from organisations such as St. Dunstan's unless they believed that the making of this order was designed to do justice to some of the most deserving people in this country. By cutting out the direct grower-to-user sales, this order has the effect of cutting that black market, and willows are now channelled to the user through the hands of reputable merchants who are cooperating with the advisory committee.

Mr. York (Ripon)

How many reputable merchants are there?

Mr. Belcher

I think the figure is 21.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth)

How many?

Mr. Belcher

I said I thought the figure was 21.

Mr. Bracken

My goodness.

Mr. Belcher

Why "My goodness"? I am not responsible for deciding how many merchants there will be in this particular industry. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes, I will later on introduce another statutory instrument which increases the number to 25, or decreases it to 15.

Mr. Bracken

I was surprised at the small number, and thought that a lot passes through their palms.

Mr. Belcher

At the end of this Debate I will think out that profound remark and endeavour to discover what it means, but at present I see no point in it. I am satisfied that the allocation scheme which is now operating is as reasonable as can be devised. In the present rather complicated circumstances, the scheme is working well.

Mr. C. Williams rose

Mr. Belcher

I am afraid I cannot give way. I have given way quite a lot and I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's point as I go along. If I do not, perhaps he will address a question to me when I have finished and I will do my best to satisfy him. Hon. Members opposite should not object that the Government, as well as providing the basis for the allocation of willows, have taken over a quota scheme and converted it into some form of statutory arrangement. Hon. Members opposite are always telling us that we have far too many civil servants, and too much Government control of this, that and the other; I should have thought they would have welcomed a scheme to enable us to use the services of a trade organisation which is prepared to co-operate with the Government and work out a satisfactory scheme for all concerned—growers, merchants and users. We did not want to interfere with an arrangement which in the past, as I am certain the hon. Member for Chippenham will agree, has worked efficiently and satisfactorily. Without these arrangements it is difficult to see how we would have got along in the years 1943–1945.

We consider that this instrument is supplementing the earlier price control with a provision that sales must be through the licensed merchants, and that this will be more readily enforceable than the old order. I may say that merchants' licences are being granted to all firms whose business reached a certain level in the basic period. This brings into the scheme all established merchants.

Mr. Bracken

What is the basic year?

Mr. Belcher

1946. This leads me to the last of the questions which is legitimately asked about an order of this kind. Will the new control achieve proper distribution? It has not been operating long enough to enable us to form a final verdict, but we believe that it may be expected to prove successful. The purpose of licensing the sales from the growers through the hands of the merchants is to ensure fair distribution. Whether we are going to achieve fair distribution depends not only on the effectiveness of this new scheme but also on the reasonableness of the scheme run by the advisory committee. We are satisfied that the basic principles are reasonable and that the way in which they are administered is eminently satisfactory. We are grateful for the work done voluntarily by the leading people in the trade. Not only are the established basket makers given a quota relating to the volume of their previous activities, but there is as much provision for new entrants as the supply position will allow. It must not be thought that this scheme means a "closed shop" for established makers, with entrance blocked. I should not agree with it if it meant that. There is reasonable provision for the new entrant.

I want to underline the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton that these present arrangements were worked out in the closest co-operation with the National Basket and Willow Trades Advisory Committee, which represents up to 95 per cent. of the people engaged in all sections of the trade. Hon. Members in all parts of the House may be quite assured, first, that the arrangements which have been made depend for their success on this instrument—the opposition to which I hope will be withdrawn, in view of the statements tonight—and secondly, that all basket manufacturers will get their fair share of the still very limited supplies of willow available. This instrument will not in fact result in maldistribution. We had maldistribution. The trade association did its best to combat it. We came to the conclusion that the only way to defeat maldistribution was to introduce this instrument, which is designed to do away with it.

Mr. C. Williams

The Parliamentary Secretary has not answered my question. Has every fisherman around Great Britain who buys a bundle of willows from a local willow grower got to have a licence, and is the person who has a few willows growing, and may sell five or 50 bundles a year, also got to have a licence and give notice of every sale? If so, that will mean thousands of licences.

Mr. Belcher

The fisherman does not require a licence; he has to buy from a licensed merchant. [Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite may laugh, but under this instrument the man will get his willows, whereas in the past, without this order, he might very well not have got them. It is the case that that state of affairs exists, and it is no laughing matter that there was a black market and very often the fisherman and the small man could not get his baskets. As to the second point of the hon. Member for Torquay, the man in that case does not need to have a licence.

11.38 p.m.

Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)

I meant to rise in the most kindly spirit, but after what the Parliamentary Secretary has said, I feel horrified at the effect of this order. From what he said, the fisherman needing to buy some willow rods to make lobster pots cannot go to the owner of a small plot, but has to write a letter to an authorised merchant who may perhaps obtain them from a grower only 100 yards from the boat. The merchant then has to buy the willows, hand them over to the fisherman, who is then permitted by the Parliamentary Secretary to make a lobster pot in which a lobster may be caught that may be consumed by the Parliamentary Secretary or the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins). That is really legislation by regulation gone mad. I should have thought the Parliamentary Secretary could have got out of the toils of the hon. Member for Taunton more easily than that.

I was surprised at the way the Parliamentary Secretary contradicted his hon. Friend who said that without this order there would be grave unemployment, and that ex-Service men and blind men would not be able to get supplies and would lose their savings. That is a dramatic and terrible picture. No one wants to bring about that sort of situation. The Parliamentary Secretary comes before us and demands that the whole of this extraordinary machinery shall be built up, but the hon. Member for Taunton has thrown a cloud over the whole position. The economics of the whole position depend on the amount of willows that are imported. The Parliamentary Secretary admits that, and so he has contradicted the hon. Member for Taunton, whose argument was based entirely on false claims in regard to the value of the order. The whole of that argument now falls to the ground.

Mr. Belcher

I think I have never heard a better example of a series of non sequiturs than the hon. Member's speech. I did not contradict my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins) in any way. My hon. Friend pointed out that there was a shortage in this country at the present time. He gave figures of people unemployed in the industry and also figures of the unfulfilled demands for its products. So far from contradicting my hon. Friend, I entirely agree with him. I agree with him that one of the reasons for the shortage was the failure to import; but this order does not have to deal with a problematical situation in years to come, when imports might or might not be resumed. It deals with the situation now. There is not the slightest contradiction between what I said and what the hon. Member for Taunton said.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I can only say that the Parliamentary Secretary is confirming what he said before; that is never very difficult for members of the Socialist Government. The Parliamentary Secretary is creating record after record by so confirming his considered view of the statements put forward by the hon. Member for Taunton. There are one or two other points which make me wonder about the authority for this order and whether a monopoly or "closed shop" has been created, and also whether this will restrict ordinary marketing operations. We were not told very much about the issuing of quotas to the different kinds of manufacturers. I should have thought there was no other description of the sort of structure set up under this order. Which gives legal form and legal rights to the structure already existing and legalises certain practices which have been carried out, possibly in conformity with the law, than to say that it is a monopoly. I can find no better example of what is really a monopoly than the description of the rights and duties and powers and everything else set out in this order.

Mr. Collins rose

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I do not think I am being unfair to the hon. Member for Taunton in any way. He has been issuing these quotas of willows to different kinds of manufacturers. He was asked under what right he did this. I believe there is no statutory right. He said it was an entirely voluntary arrangement. It is now proposed that, since what he is doing he is doing for the best, he should be given the sanction of the House. I do not see why this House should create what is the nearest thing to a monopoly one can possibly imagine; I can see no justification for it, and however much the hon. Member for Taunton may get away from it, I am saying that monopolistic powers are being given here.

Mr. Collins

If the hon. Member had been in the House at the time, he would have heard me say that at the end of the war there were 700 firms of basket manufacturers in receipt of a quota of willows, based on their 1944 consumption, which was a peak year. Since that time, 350 additional businesses have been formed, consisting of ex-Service men, all of whom have enjoyed a quota. If this is a monopoly, it is a monopoly which embraces all those who were in the basket industry during the war, and all those ex-Service men who have desired to come into the industry since. The only reason anyone else is excluded is because the supply of willows is shorter than during the war. We have, therefore, to share them out between those in the industry and the newcomers. If we do not continue to do that, people will not get the willows.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

We again have the hon. Member condoning what he said, and again he has completely missed the point. I am not saying that he is controlling the number of manufacturers. I am saying that he has taken powers to control the amount of willows issued to the different manufacturers. The monopoly exists, not in regard to the manufacturers, but in merchanting the products. That is where the monopoly bottleneck exists, and that monopoly bottleneck is being given a statutory right under this order. I do not think the hon. Member can get away from that. He and his organisation are given power, either to allow new entrants into the business, or to forbid it by refusing to grant a quota. Is that or is that not the case?

Mr. Collins

I have explained the position to the hon. Member. We have not enough willows to give to people who are not in the industry, unless they are ex-Service men or disabled persons. It is not a question of monopoly, but of shortage of willows.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

There is still a monopoly over shortage. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is the case. The hon. Member has evaded my question completely. Has he or his organisation the right, under this order, to refuse to issue willows to manufacturers or new entrants? I want an answer to that question. The obvious answer is that they have that right, and that that right is a monopoly right. The failure to provide a straight answer to a straight question speaks for itself. I did have a vague suspicion about this order before, but I certainly have a serious suspicion now, and it is no use the Parliamentary Secretary diverting the matter by arguments about what happened in 1921 and 1918. The position today is that this House is being asked to give monopoly rights to a body over which it has no control whatever, whose activities we cannot watch. I only hope that those ex-Service men who sent those telegrams will be sending the same sort of telegrams congratulating the Parliamentary Secretary in a few months' time.

11.49 p.m.

Mr. R. S. Hudson (Southport)

I do not think that the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins) and the Parliamentary Secretary have appreciated the fundamental objection we have to this order. We believe that it comes singularly ill from a Government, and especially from the same Department of that Government, on Thursday of this week to request us to approve an order which we consider runs directly contrary to the principles to which both sides of the House agreed only a week ago, when they gave an unopposed Second Reading to the Monopolies Bill. That is really the gravamen of our charge. I do not know whether the two hon. Members opposite will believe me when I tell them, quite sincerely, that it was almost impossible for us on these benches to credit our ears while we were listening to them. The whole tenor of their speeches was a justification of monopoly. Every single classical argument put forward by individual rings in favour of a monopoly was reproduced in the speech of the hon. Member for Taunton as justification for this. He said "The organisations want it." Is not that exactly what manufacturers in a ring say? Of course. They say "It is a first-class thing because all the interests want it."

I do not want to be offensive, and hope hon. Members will not regard it as offensive if I say this. Suppose an hon. Member on this side of the House said, "My family has been connected with an industry for 300 years, and therefore I think it is a justification for authorising me to form a ring." What would hon. Members opposite say? Hon. Members opposite do not appreciate what they have been saying here in the course of the last hour. The purpose of moving this Prayer is to show the country—I do not want to use too strong a word—I was almost going to say the hypocrisy of hon. Members when they are capable, in one week, of bringing in the Monopolies Bill and producing this order. I do not know whether hon. Members ever read articles by some of their ex-leaders. If they do, I recommend to them one in today's "Daily Herald" by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton). Dealing with this very question of monopolies, and explaining what kind of people the Government are and how the country is going to benefit as a result of the passage of the Monopolies Bill into law, and describing some of the evils it is to cure, he says: The Board of Trade may call on the Commission to act in any case where one-third or more of the total supply is in the hands of a firm or group of two or more persons"— There is no question here of one-third or more; it is the whole supply under this order— who have a tacit or express arrangement"— They do not need to have a tacit arrangement here; they have a statutory express arrangement in this order— to limit competition in any way. That is what the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said ought to be swept away. It is exactly what the hon. Member and what the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade have been asking us tonight to give statutory sanction to. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Let me read it. I was astounded when I picked up this paper and read it just before this Debate. [Laughter.] When hon. Members opposite have been on either of the two Front Benches as long as some of us, they will realise that it is sometimes necessary to pick things up very quickly. I will read what it says: No person shall acquire any goods from a grower except under the authority of a licence. We have heard that the authority to give the licence is the Board of Trade, on the recommendation of the ring.

Mr. Collins

We have not heard that at all. There is no question of any recommendation from the National Basket and Willow Trades Advisory Committee at all. The system on which we are working, and which has been described as a monopoly, is precisely the system under which the Timber Control or any other control has been working in the interests of equitable distribution.

Mr. Hudson

That was in war. We are now dealing with peace. Nobody on this side is going to suggest that the Timber Control is the sort of body we would wish to see continued in peace. We should all be delighted to see its powers materially altered. What we object to is the proposal by hon. Members opposite to set up some new body now in peace time, similar to what obviously was wanted in war time.

Mr. Belcher

Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that there is some intrinsic difference between war and peace—[An HON. MEMBER: "Of course there is."] If hon. Gentlemen had listened to the conclusion of my sentence, I do not think they would have made that interjection. Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that there is some intrinsic difference, quite apart from the question of the availability of supplies, which makes it necessary to have control in war time but not in peace time? I should have thought that what mattered was, not whether we were fighting a war or were at peace, but whether supplies were available. It is an unfortunate fact that in this industry, as in some others, there are less supplies now than there were during the war. I should have thought that that was justification for the continuance of the control.

Mr. Hudson

I am glad the hon. Gentleman now admits this is, in fact, a ring. The only other point I wish to make is this. The Parliamentary Secretary completely failed to deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams), who asked whether a fisherman who fishes around the coast would have to get a licence before he acquired from a farmer, or obtained permission to cut, a few bundles of willows to make or mend lobster pots or other tackle. The Parliamentary Secretary said, "Oh, no. There would be no difficulty about that, because, of course, the fisherman would buy from a licensed merchant."

I wonder if the House would be interested to know what he who wants to buy of the licensed merchant has to do? It is set out in the order. This is what, under the order, an ordinary fisherman, in quite a small way of business, who wants merely to go across the way to cut a few sticks to mend his lobster pot, has to observe and do. The order states: Any person who sells any controlled goods shall, on or before the delivery thereof, give to the buyer ֵ and Any person who buys any controlled goods shall, on or before taking delivery thereof, take from the seller a memorandum … This is what the memorandum must state—and it is all done by statute:

  1. "(a) the names and addresses of the buyer and the seller,
  2. (b) the date of sale,
  3. (c) the descriptions of the controlled goods sold,
  4. (d) where the controlled goods are sold wholly or partly by the sorted bundle, the number of sorted bundles of each description sold,
  5. (e) where the controlled goods are sold wholly or partly by weight, the weight of each description sold."
One can see a man taking a pair of scales with him to cut a few bundles of sticks at a neighbour's, in order to fill up the memorandum. But there is more yet to be stated in the memorandum, as (f) the price of sale, and how it is made up, and (g) if any charge is made for transport, the place from and to which transport is or has been provided or paid for by the seller. Does the Parliamentary Secretary really justify asking every man who wants a bundle of rods to do all that? It is fantastic; and he knows it is fantastic. It is what this Government have brought the country to. The Government—and the hon. Member for Taunton—are asking the House tonight to agree to setting up a ring, and to making an ordinary man who wants an ordinary bundle of willow rods with which to mend his lobster pot go through all this. That is what the country has come to.

Question put, and negatived.