HC Deb 29 January 1948 vol 446 cc1186-9
43. Mr. Collins

asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he is aware that organised opposition to the Pilot Census of Distribution is being encountered in some of the towns chosen for the pilot census; and what action he proposes to take.

Mr. H. Wilson

Yes, Sir. I am aware that in certain towns covered by this census, retailers and others are being advised to withhold co-operation with the Government in this experiment. While the census is voluntary, it is very regrettable that traders should be discouraged in this way from completing their returns, and I can only suppose that those who are responsible for this opposition are under the impression that by limiting the success of the pilot census they will bring about the postponement or even abandonment of the National Census. This is certainly not the case. The Statistics of Trade Act passed last year made provision for a national census and the plans for this, which will be compulsory, will go forward whatever the response may be to the pilot census. The most the campaign can succeed in doing is to prevent us from framing the questions in the National Census in the form most convenient to traders.

I would also like to repeat the reassurance of my predecessor that any information given in individual returns received by the Census of Distribution Office will not be seen by anyone outside that office, nor will it be communicated to any other Government Department or used in any way other than to arrive at the census totals. In particular, it will not be used for such matters as Income Tax, rationing, price control or allocation of supplies. I can give the same assurance about confidential treatment of returns at the coming national census. Traders need, therefore, have no hesitation in completing their census forms, and I hope that the majority of them will do so as fully as they can and will send them in as soon as possible.

Mr. Collins

Can my right hon. Friend give some form of guarantee that will remove any fears retailers may have that the returns from the pilot census may be used to nationalise the retail trade and will he make it perfectly clear that the proper preparation of the National census forms will be quite impossible unless we can get correct information in the pilot census?

Mr. Wilson

The retail distributors have had already the fullest assurance on that point. The purpose of the pilot census is to enable us to prepare the forms which will give us the information required with the least possible trouble to retailers when we take the compulsory census.

Sir P. Hannon

Can the Minister say whether any evidence has come to the Board of Trade that can be relied on that this organised opposition referred to in the Question exists?

Mr. Wilson

There is plenty of evidence on that point. It is a fact that a number of quite high-powered representatives of the National Chamber of Trade are going round the country stirring up opposition to this voluntary census. When I met members of the Executive this week and asked them to invite their members to stop doing this, they said that they would not take any steps in the matter.

Mr. H. D. Hughes

Can the Minister say what advice or assistance is available to retailers to enable them to complete this extensive and complicated schedule?

Mr. Wilson

We have a number of information bureaux in various parts of the country who will help them, and also, of course, the National Chamber of Trade could provide services for that purpose.

Mr. Erroll

Does the right hon. Gentleman suggest that we are not allowed to protest nowadays when we want to?

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

Is the Minister surprised that retail traders are suspicious of the intentions of the Government?

Mr. Wilson

The retail distributors have done so well under this Government that I am surprised, and if the hon. Gentleman will turn up the answer which I gave a week ago on the number of bankruptcies in the retail trade while we have been in power, compared with the number when the party opposite were in power, he will see why.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

In order to put the matter in its right perspective, and as the Minister has given an indication of what he said to the National Chamber of Trade, would it not be fair for him to put to the House the case which that body put to him, so that we can judge?

Mr. Wilson

The only statement which they made of any relevance was that they were not behind any organised national campaign, and that the Executive of that body has not actively carried out this campaign. I fully accept that. The other arguments which they put were arguments which apply to the compulsory census of distribution scheduled for 1950, and agreed to by this House.

Mr. Leslie Hale

Is not the right hon. Gentleman of opinion that today's overwhehning anti-Conservative vote at Camlachie was a clear and appropriate expression of the right to protest?