HC Deb 07 November 1949 vol 469 cc1013-26

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

9.53 p.m.

Sir David Robertson (Streatham)

I desire to raise an important matter concerning the freedom of employed men and women to spend their wages where they like without interference from their employers or anyone else, and also the right of every one of us to register for rationed foods where we like and with whom we like. In May of this year, an attempt was made by the Scottish Cooperative Wholesale Society to interfere with both these rights in a letter dated 17th May, which I beg leave to read to the House. It is headed, "Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society Limited. Retail Branches. Northern Area Office. Golspie. 17th May, 1949. To all Branches," and reads: 'Dear Sir. It has come to the notice of the Undersigned that some of our employees have not been fully registered with their respective Branches. We are more than disturbed to find this situation, and we wish to point out that if employees do not set an example, how can we expect the members to be loyal? On the other hand, as Branch Manager, you are entitled to expect the full support of all employees and their families. We would ask you to investigate the position and ascertain the employees who are not supporting fully all sections of your Branch, and forward details to this office. We are determined that where an employee does not consider it his or her duty to support the organisation, then we will require to take up a similar attitude. Where there is a fleshing department we again would expect the support of all employees. You will appreciate that there will require to be a very good reason given for employees not being fully registered with grocery and fleshing departments. In this connection, might we also state that one would expect general support for our drapery and footwear sections, and we ask you to analyse the position and let us have the benefit of your observations. Yours truly, for, Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society Limited, J. A. Scott, Area Manager. That letter reached me from a small trader who had been previously supplying registered foods to persons employed by this great Co-operative Society.

I immediately sent that letter to the Minister of Food and put down a Ques- tion to him. I received his acknowledgement in writing, but when the Question came up for answer, oddly enough it was down to the Minister of Labour who had a very high number of Questions that day and I had to take a written answer. In the first Question which I put down I asked the Minister of Labour what action he had taken with the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society in regard to a letter of 17th May, a copy of which had been sent to him, threatening employees of the Society's retail branches who registered with and shop at private traders. In reply the Minister said that he understood that the letter in question was written without authority and had now been withdrawn.

Mr. Dodds (Dartford)

Quite right.

Sir D. Robertson

Quite illegal. I was dissatisfied with that answer and I put down another Question to the Minister of Labour, but oddly enough that was transferred to the Minister of Food. Strangely enough, he had a high number of Questions that week, and I was obliged to postpone it so that ultimately I could get a verbal answer, which I got on 11th July. I asked the Minister of Food if he would inform the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society that their employees enjoyed the same rights as all other citizens to register for rations and other goods with traders of their own selection, and that threats of compulsion must not be used against them.

The Minister of Food replied that as the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society already allowed their employees complete freedom of choice of retailers when registering for rationed foods, he did not feel called upon to take any action. I asked whether he denied that the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society wrote to their workers threatening them with dismissal unless they registered with, and purchased from, them. In reply the Minister said that that letter was withdrawn. He added that as he understood the circumstances, the manager of one branch wrote the letter which the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society immediately repudiated.

I asked whether there was any reason why there should be any misunderstanding in his mind, because I had sent him the letters in question. It was signed by the Northern area manager and was addressed to all branch managers, and it concerned all the employees of the Society in that area. The Minister replied: As a matter of fact, it was the manager of the Golspie branch."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th July, 1949; Vol. 467, c. 15.] I regard that as extremely unsatisfactory. The Minister had had the letter weeks before. He knew that there was a letter circulating, issued from an area office, to all of the society's branches in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire, which are controlled from Golspie. I am sorry to say this, but it became apparent to me that both the Minister of Labour and the Minister of Food were playing down my Questions and the very important issues raised. The Minister of Food completely misrepresented the matter.

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed without Question put.

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

Sir D. Robertson

The Minister of Food completely misrepresented the situation to this House when he said it concerned one branch. I recollect that day very well and when I protested that it was a large area with many branches he shook his head. That is not recorded in HANSARD, but it was reported in the daily Press. It concerned not just one branch, but it emanated from Golspie and it concerned all the branches. I also found the Minister's statement a somewhat pompous and arrogant statement—that the Board of the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society "allowed" their employees freedom of choice. I cannot conceive a more ridiculous statement. It is not in the power of that board or any other board, or any other group of people, to interfere with the freedom of choice, and for the Minister of Food to get up in this House and make a statement of that kind is quite amazing. It would be entirely illegal for them to attempt to interfere. Long before any Socialist Member came to this House the Truck Acts of 1831 and the Amendment Acts of 1887 stated—and I am quoting from Wilshere and Indermaur's Common Law: Provisions are made prohibiting payment for work in goods or otherwise than in current coin … or contracts with workers obliging them to spend their wages at any particular place. Here we have a Minister of the Crown telling hon. Members of the British Parliament that this Board of the Co-operative Society "allow" their members to do something which it is their inalianable right to do and which was laid down over a century ago. The Minister of Labour said the letter was issued without authority and was withdrawn and the Minister of Food said it had been repudiated. Presumably the right hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food is to reply tonight, and I am sorry that she has to take the burden of this Debate. If she replies I hope she will tell the House exactly what form the withdrawal and the repudiation took, because that is very important to all these employees who have been threatened. Every one of these employees has been threatened. They know the wishes of the area manager, who is still there today.

Mr. Coldrick (Bristol, North)

Are the employees still there?

Sir D. Robertson

This man sent this out in writing—writing for and on behalf of the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society.

Mr. Coldrick

How many employees?

Sir D. Robertson

Does it matter whether there were three or 300? The principle must be the same.

Mr. Coldrick

I should like to ask the hon. Member whether the employees are not also still there?

Sir Wavell Wakefield (St. Marylebone)

What has that to do with it?

Sir D. Robertson

The hon. Member for North Bristol (Mr. Coldrick) wanted to know something. I am sorry I did not hear him.

Mr. Coldrick

The hon. Member said the manager is still there and I asked him, politely, are the employees not there also?

Sir D. Robertson

I hope they are and I should like to say that if any employees of this society are dismissed because they have not registered with the society and that reaches my ears, I shall see that something is done about it.

It is most important that this House should be told tonight exactly in what way that repudiation and that withdrawal were effected. I should like to know the extent of the publicity, whether the letter was circulated to all branch managers and whether it was circulated to all employees. Was any reference made to it at all in the literature which the Co-ops issue? I have suspicions in this matter and I knew the Co-operative Society quite intimately—professionally—as a young apprentice many years ago. My chief audited the accounts of the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society and I assisted in a very junior capacity. We conducted the audits of many retail societies, and it was then the policy of the Society to get more and more members. The drive was always on. Quite commendable. But the only people who were going to benefit from the economic compulsion of those employees were the Scottish Co-Operative Wholesale Society.

Mr. Dodds


Sir D. Robertson

Because of the increased purchases by and increased profits from new members. It is not a very good advertisement for a Co-operative Society if its employees shop in small Highland towns and villages elsewhere. I can see all the reasons for applying the pressure, and I am rather inclined to take the view that the manager's offence was being found out.

The next aspect of this unsavoury business is the attitude of the Ministers in playing-down my Questions and in soft-pedalling their answers. I have read them all out to the House, so hon. Members must be able to form their own judgment. In my judgment the Ministers acted like counsel for the defence.

Sir W. Wakefield

They are.

Sir D. Robertson

I wonder how they would have acted if my Question had concerned a private enterprise chain store. I can see those benches opposite aflame with indignation—and rightly, too. As it was, there was not a word from them when I asked my Question.

Mrs. Rideaigh (Ilford, North)


Sir D. Robertson

I will give way in a minute. The Minister of Food shook his head, playing-down the Question. What was his motive in playing it down? What was the motive of the Minister of Labour? I think I can tell the House. The Co-operative Societies are valuable political allies, who contribute a great deal of money to Election expenses and for Socialist propaganda. I am told that something between £300,000 and £500,000 per annum is contributed from that source. I feel that that was the motive.

I recollect—and I am sure that the House will, too—that about a year ago the Minister of Food suddenly took the decision to give a preferential allotment of imported turkeys, imported poultry and rabbits, to the Co-operative societies, without consultation with the Government controlled company, controlled by this Government, which was responsible for these foods—without any prior consultation with them at all. The shareholders of the company, representing big, powerful wholesalers—not small traders—protested to the Minister of Food and they were allowed commission on the special allocation. So they were bought off, and no further noise came from them, but only from the small, unorganised fishmongers and poulterers and butchers who were going to suffer.

The Minister of Food in this House—actually, I think it was the right hon. Lady—said the reason for this extraordinary preference was that the meat registrations at the Co-ops had gone up by so much per cent., but it was admitted that no attempt was made to find out if the meat registrations of private enterprise traders had also gone up. It was a crude, ruthless blow at all the rest of the industry in favour of the Co-ops. I suggest that the Minister of Food was paying a very good dividend to his political and financial allies, but it was done at the expense of the small private traders and their customers, for the fishmongers and poulterers are the people who, all the year round, sell poultry and rabbits, unlike the Co-ops, who, before the war, were notorious for the few number of shops at which they were selling poultry.

That is why their allocation is quite a small one. They get what they are entitled to, the same as everybody else. But the grievance I have and that I think the House had at the time was that if the allocation was changed it was not changed for everyone. We are all "Jock Simpson's bairns" so far as the Minister of Food is concerned, or so far as any other Minister is concerned, but it was grossly improper for the Minister of Food to show favour to the Co-operative societies.

Mrs. Ridealgh

The hon. Gentleman said that he knew the Co-operative movement very well. Can he tell me of any other instance in the whole of the 100 years of the Co-operative movement when this thing has happened?

Sir D. Robertson

If the hon. Lady had listened to my remarks I said that I believed that the constant policy of the society was more and more members. This inexorable drive for customers went on. I do not find any fault with that, and I think that a great deal of credit is due to the Co-operative societies for the great commercial success they have obtained, but I do find fault with their very one-sided association with the party opposite and greater fault with the methods which I have already described.

I am attempting to say that there was a definite motive which actuated the Minister of Food in playing down, my Questions and in giving an unwarrantable and unjustifiable allocation of foodstuffs at Christmas to the Co-op. Ten per cent. is an enormous quantity of game, rabbits and poultry. Recently a speech was made by Lord Shepherd, who is Chief Whip of the Socialist Party in another place. The Minister of Food comes into this, too. "The Times" of 19th October carries this article: The Co-operative Union was surprised at a recent statement by Lord Shepherd that Government shops might be opened as a step towards reducing retail prices by competition. At a meeting of the union's central board on 15th October it was announced that an explanation would be sought from the Labour Party as soon as possible. The Co-operative movement's view is that it is its function to achieve the object explained by Lord Shepherd, and that economic democracy can be established by means other than direct State enterprise. The Minister of Food spoke on the same day at Manchester when addressing the Co-operative shop managers. "The Times" stated: Mr. Strachey was asked for his observations on a statement reported to have been made by Lord Shepherd in a speech at Cambridge Mr. Strachey replied to his questioner: I believe I am speaking in the name of the whole Government when I say that retail distribution would be regarded by us as one of the last and least promising fields for direct State activity.'

Mr. Speaker

I think that involves legislation and therefore we cannot discuss it.

Sir D. Robertson

I am only quoting and not suggesting that should be done.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)

Would I be correct in asking if the hon. Gentleman intends to allow any time for other Members to take part in the Debate or if he intends limiting what time remains to a reply from the Minister?

Sir D. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman is only wasting more time by his interruption. This is a statement made by the Minister of Food: We regard the great co-operative distribution system as a vital factor in the field of retail distribution, and it is that great and growing co-operative sector of our retail distribution system which is one of the factors which makes us regard with very great hesitation any direct approach to retail State trading methods. I have for a long time taken the view that the avowed policy of the Socialist party was to use the ready-made Socialist machinery provided by Co-operative societies, wholesale and retail, for the distribution of foods and goods of all kinds. I do not think that clearer evidence could be got from the Minister of Food speaking on behalf of the whole Government. The evidence which I have already given of the extraordinary playing down of my Questions, the special turkey, poultry and rabbits allocations, and now this statement which I have read clearly indicate to me that the policy of our present rulers and of the Socialist party is the complete Socialist State controlling production, exchange and distribution by this great and growing democratic economic machine which the Minister of Food referred to. That is the view I take. Happily the people will soon have a chance to save our country from such a fate.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Irving (Tottenham, North)

I have to begin by declaring my interest. I am a member of the Co-operative Society, and also an ex-employee of the Co-operative movement. I have had many employers in my time, but I cannot hope to have a better one than the Co-operative movement. I never knew an employer to show the same tolerance to employees and to stand for justice in the same way as the Co-operative movement. I have persuaded hundreds of my friends and fellow trade unionists to join the movement, not by using coercion but by using moral suasion. [Laughter.] No doubt moral suasion is something entirely new to hon. Members opposite. I shall have more to say about it in a moment.

I can understand the enthusiasm of the employee referred to. Because he was enjoying the benefits of Co-operative employment and Co-operative trading he wanted to spread them. I also understand that the moment his employers knew what had been done they repudiated the circular and asked this man to apologise to the members concerned. I cannot imagine any capitalist employer doing the same thing. The hon. Member for Streatham (Sir D. Robertson) made a very unfortunate choice in quoting the Truck Acts, because it was the operation of those Acts which brought the Co-operative movement into being; Robert Owen and his friends saw what the Truck Acts were doing and persuaded men and women to support the Co-operative shops instead of the Truck Act shops.

Probably this man's father or grandfather told him about the development of the Co-operative movement, and how Tory Government after Tory Government had placed restrictions on its development, and no doubt his enthusiasm on this occasion went a little too far. I need not remind hon. Members of the steps taken in two wars against the Co-operative movement by means of food control and the raw deal it got. Under this Government it has been remedied to some extent. However, we have not yet got full justice, and we shall press the Government until we do. I need hardly remind the House of the penal tax placed upon the Co-operative Society.

I think the hon. Member for Streatham is likely to get into some trouble with the party boss over this Debate, because the party boss, Lord Woolton, has been sweethearting the Co-operative movement lately: he wants us to come into the Tory Party—the party which down the ages has restricted the development of our movement. His wooing will meet with refusal. The Co-operative movement shows more tolerance than any other movement I know. It is a movement which stands for tolerance. But what about the Tory Party? Last month, after the Leader of the Opposition had staged a pre-election campaign for an election which did not materialise, Lord Woolton made a speech in London, addressing the Conservative Club members, in which he said, "This is no time for tolerance," because certain nonmembers of the Conservative Party had got into the Conservative Club. The hon. Member for Streatham comes to the House and complains that we are trying to bring people into our movement while Lord Woolton is throwing people out of the Conservative Club. Is that tolerance?

Ever since I have been in this House, there has never been an opportunity lost by Members opposite to attack the Co-operative movement. Every time, of course, they have failed, and they will continue to fail so long as the co-operators of this country have confidence in a Labour Government, and that confidence is stronger today than ever before. We shall link up with the Labour Party at the next General Election to protect the Co-operative movement from such attacks as those which have been made tonight.

10.21 p.m.

Mr. Coldrick (Bristol, North)

I am afraid I have no time to go into all the matters referred to by the hon. Member for Streatham (Sir D. Robertson). I think that he has made "much ado about nothing." Let me make it abundantly clear that it is perfectly correct that an over-zealous manager covering a particular area—and for the benefit of the House I would point out that there are 15 retail societies in the area to which the hon. Member made reference—sent out the circular suggested. This branch manager—

Sir D. Robertson

He was an area manager.

Mr. Coldrick

He is termed a branch manager as far as the S.C.W.S. is concerned, and I know as much about its constitution as any Member opposite. Immediately the chief executive officer was aware that the circular had been sent out he withdrew it, and as far as the area manager was concerned he took the responsibility, with his assistant, to visit each one of the branches to see that the offending circular was at once withdrawn. We were not content with that. We immediately got into touch with the general secretary of the S.C.W.S., and we had it authoritatively from him that he strongly disapproved, and the whole board disapproved, of the action taken by this branch manager.

Seeing that the circular has been withdrawn, and it has been made abundantly clear to everyone concerned that we rely on persuasion and not compulsion in the Co-operative movement, the board of the S.C.W.S.—[Interruption.] I have attempted to make abundantly clear what is the exact position as far as the society is concerned. In order not to take up the whole of the remaining time, let me say authoritatively on behalf of the whole Co-operative movement that the movement never seeks to impose upon its employees the obligations suggested by the hon. Member. We have no intention whatever, so far as the future is concerned, to adopt a policy of that nature. I conclude by saying that we have—

Major Gates (Middleton and Prestwich)

The hon. Member is repeatedly using the word "We." Has he some interest to declare in this matter?

Mr. Coldrick

I have made it abundantly clear that I have an interest in this respect as a member of the Co-operative movement, but all Members on this side of the House would have to declare an interest, and no doubt a substantial number of Members opposite also belong to the movement. I have attempted to set out the facts. I deprecate the attempts made on the Adjournment to denigrate the Co-operative movement, when the hon. Member could have obtained very easily the whole of the facts without wasting the time of the House and attempting to create the impression that favouritism has been shown.

10.25 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Edith Summer-skill)

The hon. Member for Streatham (Sir D. Robertson) made an emotional speech tonight, which betrayed his hatred of the Co-operative movement. Because I think he was overcome by his desire to be venomous and malicious he was unable to see this incident in its proper perspective. I ask the House now to be rational and to regard this incident as an incident. I am sure that when they leave the House the large number of Members opposite, almost unprecedented for an Adjournment—I am accustomed to speak at this time to empty benches opposite—will go away realising that they have been gravely misled by the hon. Member for Streatham.

Sir D. Robertson

Is the right hon. Lady entitled to accuse me in this House, where I do my public duty in raising a matter of very great importance, of being venomous? I submit that that is entirely contrary to the tradition of this House.

Dr. Summerskill

I have three minutes left. I listened very carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and perhaps he will kindly let me have these last three minutes in order to assure the House that—[HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] If the hon. Gentleman feels hurt about being called venomous I withdraw it, but I ask him to think about his words tonight and look at himself in the mirror, and perhaps he will agree that my diagnosis is correct.

Sir D. Robertson

The right hon. Lady withdrew her remarks and then suggested that I should look at myself in the mirror. It seems to me that that is outrageous conduct from any Minister.

Mr. Speaker

I have never known "venomous" to be ruled out of Order. One, after all, has got to take the cut and thrust of Debate.

Dr. Summerskill

In the two and a half minutes that I have left I want to assure this House that at no time did my right hon. Friend try to gloss over this matter, and my hon. Friends behind me have quite fairly described the incident that took place. I want to endorse briefly what they said on this matter. One individual, a Mr. Scott, in this area, overcome perhaps by excessive zeal, decided to circularise with a letter the managers of 15 branches in his area. When this was discovered by the board they immediately repudiated it. The hon. Gentleman quite rightly asked, what proof is there of that? The Secretary of the Parliamentary Committee of the Co-operative Society, whom I know very well and who is a very responsible individual, wrote in these terms: I have been asked to state that the action taken in this respect was without the knowledge of my Board, and, indeed, as soon as our attention was drawn to the position immediate steps were taken to have the situation corrected and the circular withdrawn. It has always been our firm conviction that the expansion and development of the Co-operative movement could best be achieved by methods of persuasion rather than those of compulsion.

Sir D. Robertson

What is the date of that?

Dr. Summerskill

It is 6th June, immediately after the incident. I have no desire to evade this issue, The House never finds me trying to indulge in sharp practices. What happened to the man Scott? He was reprimanded and then told to go to each of the managers who had received this letter, and personally to demand a return of the letter. Either he or his deputy did this, but I think the House will agree that the Board of Management showed that they had no desire to conceal what they considered was a wrong action of this employee. For some reason or other the hon. Gentleman opposite, who must have known these facts, refrained from making the careful investigation—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half past Ten o'Clock.