HL Deb 06 August 1919 vol 36 cc504-23

LORD PARMOOR rose to ask His Majesty's Government under what authority the Executive had placed an embargo on the importation of goods and commodities other than arms, ammunition, and gunpowder. The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I see the noble Lord who represents the Board of Trade in his place, and I assume that he is there in order to answer this Question because I sent him information as to the nature of my complaint. So as to understand what the complaint really is, I must shortly tell your Lordships the conditions under which these so-called embargoes have been imposed.

I have before me an official document called the "Supplement to the Board of Trade Journal and Commercial Gazette," issued on July 31, 1919. Since that date there May have been some alteration in the number of articles involved, but there is no change as regards the question of principle. This "Supplement" has a consolidated list of import restrictions revised to date, and they are, put under two headings. Part I is "Articles which may be imported without license from the Department of Import Restrictions." I am not concerned with this list of articles except to point out that in my view neither the Board of Trade nor any other authority has power to make embargoes which depend on whether licences have been granted or not. Then there is Part II, "List of Articles which may not be imported without licence from the Department of Import Restrictions," and under that latter head there are somewhere about 300 articles scheduled. It is not a matter which applies to a few articles but to a large number of ordinary articles of commerce.

To show your Lordships the nature of the schedule, I will mention a few of the commodities included in it. We find butter and buttons together, chemicals and clocks, embroidery and feathers, gin and hosiery, matches and metal boot protectors, saccharine and scissors, tomatoes and umbrella frames; and lastly, although they come before a different Department, paper and sugar. I do not wish to dwell on these articles more than to say that I have given them as illustrations to show the very wide range of goods or commodities included within the restriction that they cannot be imported into this country without the grant of a licence. One of the columns in this Schedule gives the extent to which licences will be issued, and we find that they fire issued as regards 20 per cent. of the imports in 1913, or 50 per cent. of the imports in some other year. So that in all those cases there is it restriction on the amount to be imported, which necessitates a discrimination as regards the grant of licences to traders by whom the import is authorised. As regards a very large number of these articles there is this note at the bottom of the schedule— Where no ration is stated" [where no percentage is granted] "the goods will be licensed only exceptionally as and when required. One knows what that must mean so far as the consumer is concerned. If no licences are to be granted except as and when required the consumer probably may wait until the Greek Kalends, or beyond, until he gets any goods at all.

I am going to point out presently that in my view, under the authority on which the Board of Trade claim to be acting, I think they have no right to prohibit under the embargo system at all; but within that the very large question arises, whether, even if they have the right of general prohibition, they have the right in any sense to discriminate between particular traders, to grant licences to some and to refuse them to others. Certainly that is a policy inconsistent both with constitutional practice and with the statutory provisions as they exist at the present time. Let us see what this means. I do not wish to dwell upon this part of the case as I see the noble Lord (Lord Emmott), who was at one time chairman of the Import Restrictions Committee, in his place, and he will be able to place the facts before the House.


It was only an advisory committee.


Still, the noble Lord was cognisant of what I might call the business conditions as regards these matters. This is a question, of course, which one would not seek to raise during war time, but it is a different matter now when the war is over and we have at any rate the attempted restoration of peace conditions. In the first place, this system of licensed embargoes in particular cases is the substitution of an artificial standard for the business standard of the requirements of customers. I myself ant very much opposed to the whole modern bureaucratic tendency of official interference, but I think you have it in its worst form when you have a tribunal, or official body, attempting in regard to as many as 300 commodities to decide what is or is not required for consumption in this country.

In the second place, it gives a power of discriminating between traders in the granting of licences. That is a power which no Executive in my opinion ought to possess. It is a dangerous power. It is a power which involves giving concessions of very large pecuniary value to particular traders, and, to use plain language—which I think we ought to use at a time like this—it is certainly capable of corrupt abuse. I am not suggesting that I have any knowledge of any particular case; I am merely dealing with conditions as they affect ordinary business lines and ordinary business arrangements. It is not right, in my judgment, that the Executive Government by its own operation should be able to discriminate in the giving of licences to some traders and refusing them to others; because owing to the importance and the value of such licences that power is undoubtedly capable of corrupt abuse. The same official interference adversely affects the free flow of trade and places unnecessary restrictions in the way of commerce. It does that particularly in the case of forward contracts, which are a very important part of the business operations of this country.

I should like to ask the noble Lord a question, as I am not sure that I gave him information about this, because it was brought to my notice after I had an opportunity of telling him that I was going to bring up this matter. A large amount of business in this country is done by bills of lading—that is to say, the goods are not really for importation into this country but they go through our docks or Customs House, as the case may be, on their road to their ultimate destination. I am told that the discriminating licence principle is used even as regards goods which are being carried on a through bill of lading. That is a special form of interference with our business which might be of a very serious kind.

Take another illustration of what I mean as regards this official interference. It gives obvious opportunities for profiteering as regards particular individuals, because it gives them a favoured position, and a favoured position is really of the essence of profiteering. If you have everything in the open and everything free, profiteering becomes essentially difficult. Your Lordships will recollect that although there is opportunity for profiteering on the one hand, there is no benefit to the State on the other. We are not dealing with any question of duties. There is not a farthing, so far as the State is concerned, which comes from this system of discriminate licensing embargoes. Interference with the import of commodities in a certain sense tends to keep up prices, and what strikes me as a matter of vital importance is that the Government do not seem to appreciate that one of the most fertile causes of industrial unrest and industrial disquiet at the present time is dissatisfaction with high prices. If you want to put an end to these industrial disturbances the first element to be considered, and the most important factor, is that anything in the nature of artificial prices or prices unduly high should not exist longer than is absolutely necessary.

Then as regards production, Mr. Hoover and, I think, every member who spoke on the Supreme Economic Council, has pointed out that the only real cure for war devastation is the maximum of industrial production. If you really want to get reconstruction of industrial conditions you ought to encourage production to the utmost; but you certainly do not do that by this discrinimating system of licensing, which in many cases may prevent the very import which would pay for exports from this country. I have seen two explanations given—I think they were given in another place—in justification of this system, on which I would like to say a word, apart from the more technical ground. It is said that it is necessary to protect key industries. It is impossible to justify an excuse of that kind when you see the wide nature of the commodities to which this discriminating licence principle is applied. I read out some of them to your Lordships, including tomatoes. Can any one say that a tomato is a key industry or that a particular licence system is necessary because an industry of that kind can be so described? The only second justification I saw—it was stated also in another place—was that it was necessary to keep up American exchange; but the great majority of goods to which a discriminating licence would apply could not possibly affect the American exchange in any way, because a large majority of the goods to which this principle is made applicable are not imported from America or have no relation to American trade.

There is one other fact I want to call attention to before I deal with the more technical point. I will deal with it very shortly having reference to what the noble Lord, Lord Emmott, said. In this case, as in many others, there has been introduced a principle of advisory councils. I regard advisory councils with great diffidence. Their effect is to weaken the responsibility of Ministers who ought to hear the brunt of responsibility on one side, and you introduce an element on the other side which, although at first sight it may appear to be an advantage, yet when you come to analyse the conditions I think clearly tells in an opposite direction. I merely make upon this point a complaint which has been made to me by large traders. They say, "If we ask for a licence as regards a particular commodity we are referred to the advisory council. Now the advisory council represents our rivals in trade. They are chosen because they have a knowledge of the trade in reference to which we are wanting a particular licence." Two questions are asked—first of all, "What price are you prepared to pay?" and, secondly, "What is time market in which you are going to purchase your commodity?" Those are exactly the two matters which a trader does not care to disclose to his commercial rivals. You therefore not only have a body which improperly, as I think, takes away the responsibility from the Minister, but, in addition, you have a body often of rival traders, the very last persons to whom a particular trader would care to apply in connection with his own business for a licence as regards these commodities.

Having stated the nature of the conditions, I now ask the noble Lord what his authority is for a system of this kind. In the first place, I can say without any hesitation that the common law would give no countenance whatsoevor to a system of selective licences under a system of discrimination; on the contrary, every principle of the common law is that every one is to be treated equally and placed in the same position as regards matters of import or matters of export. Secondly, I am not aware—the noble Lord will tell me if I am wrong—of any justification under any of the Emergency Statutes or under the powers of D.O.R.A. I have made such inquiries as I could, but the answer has always been in the negative. I may say perhaps in addition to that one who was a Minister in the early days and who had considerable knowledge of the Emergency Statutes, speaking the other day in London gave it as his view and as the result of his research that none of the Emergency Statutes or none of the powers of D.O.R.A. could be called to the assistance of the Board of Trade in order to justify these discriminating embargoes.

On constitutional ground there is a well-grounded objection to all such discrimination; but I need not refer in any detail to the constitutional grounds, because there are two Statutes, one of which, I believe, is relied on by the noble Lord representing the Board of Trade, which in terms say that any such action as is now being taken as regards these discriminating embargo licences is in itself illegal. The first of these—and it is a measure of very great importance in our commercial law—is what is known as the "Monopoly" Statute, passed in the reign of James [...] think the actual year was 1623. During the preceeding half century before that Act was passed there had been constant friction as regards the granting of licences to particular traders, giving them, as it would, menopoly conditions. As a matter of fact, the chairman of a committee to deal with these restrictions which was appointed was the great lawyer, Sir Edward Coke. In the result the Statute was passed. This Statute in terms, I will ask your Lordships to notice, pronounces licences as contrary to the law of the realm (I am quoting from the Statute)—and to be regarded as utterly void and of no effect unless authorised by Act of Parliament. Whether there is any such authority I will come to in a moment. The only exceptions are the well-known provisions as regards inventions—that is, patent grants of fourteen years—and the law of copyright. Subject to these two exceptions, as this Statute of Monopoly stands, there is a declaration of the illegality of anything in the nature of discriminating licences. This point arises. In old days our forefathers fought the Tudor and Stuart Kings in order to have commercial freedom, apart front commercial interference, as regards this question. It appears from the bureaucratic tendencies of this age as though we were about to enter that fight over again, because in every Act, or almost every Act, of the present time there is something of bureaucratic interference, and at the same time the Act is so worded that bureaucratic interference cannot be called into question before the ordinary Courts of Law.

The next Act—and I believe this is the Act in force at the present time, and the only Act on which the Board of Trade relies—is the Customs Act of 1876. That Act is a Consolidation Act which comprises nearly thirty sections and has to be construed as a Consolidation Act. And let me say this. I have the Act here, as I thought it was well to have the reference. I will read this. So far as Section 39 is concerned it states this— It shall be lawful to import into the United Kingdom any goods which are not by Statute at the time of the importation thereof prohibited. That is the general principle, and then we come to the prohibitions. The prohibitions are, first of all, counterfeit coin, obscene prints, and matters of that kind. Next, we come to Section 43 which says— The importation of arms, ammunition, gunpowder, or any other goods may be prohibited by Proclamation or Order in Council. There are two factors which appear to me to be perfectly clear on Section 43. First of all, it is totally out of accord with what is said in Section 43 that you should have discriminating licences at all. The prohibition of an article because it is, in itself, an article which ought not to be imported, is an entirely different factor, and is determined by different considerations, from cases where you have this principle of discriminating licences.

The first point I make is that, so far as discriminating licences are concerned, the whole Act of 1876 is opposed to them and re-states the constitutional principle that they shall not be allowed. Then, as regards the words "or any other goods," it is clear, I think, to any one's mind that goods will be prohibited on the ground that they are in themselves undesirable things to be imported into this country. I am not going into any technical question of ejusdem generis or any legal point, but that is the widest interpretation possible. In my opinion certainly it could not cover the present case. That is why I ask the Government to state what their authority is for what has been done. After looking into all these matters, unless I have overlooked anything, it appears that there is no authority at all. It seems to me that what is done is, in itself, contrary, not only to the Common Law and constitutional practice but to the terms of the two sections to which I have called attention. I hope the noble Lord, when he comes to answer this Question, will be able to say that there is no point which has been overlooked which would give an authority which certainly cannot be derived from the only Acts to which, so far as I know, reference has ever been made.


My Lords, I had no idea when I came here this afternoon that this question was going to be discussed in your Lordships' House but, as it has been brought forward and as I take a very deep interest in the matter, I feel compelled to ask your Lordships to be good enough to allow me to say a few words upon it. I shall not, of course, attempt to deal with the technical legal aspect, because that has been admirably dealt with by the noble and learned Lord opposite. I will content myself with saving that, so far as my humble judgment is worth anything—and I am afraid it is worth very little on legal matters—I entirely agree with what he has said. I cannot conceive how the words "or any other goods," following the words "arms, ammunition, gunpowder," can be reasonably contrued into the prohibition of such dangerous articles as flat irons, sewing machines, and metal fittings for corsets and suspenders.

When I had to do with this matter, as Chairman of an Advisory Committee which never had the materials for dealing with the question until the month of March, there was a case, as there is to-day, for safeguarding, in some form or other, "key" industries. That is common ground. There was also, I think, a case, and there may be still a case, as regards a few industries for allowing industries which have been diverted from peace purposes to war purposes a reasonable allowance of time to get back to race production, and that was the line on which. if I had had to administer the matter I am very glad I had not, for it was an extraordinarily difficult question—I should have dealt with it.

I only want to make a few remarks this afternoon on the practical aspect (if this Question. I leave on one side for the moment the injury to trade which results from the hunt for a licence. I leave all the ridiculous affairs that occur from time to time. One of them I heard of recently, in which I believe a clerk in my old Department, owing to some misunderstanding with the Board of Agriculture, wrote to ask an applicant who wanted a licence to export a colt whether the colt was a steer. That ridiculous sort of thing does go on in the hunt for these licences. Protection by tariff may be a good thing or a bad thing—I am not going to discuss that question at all—but protection by prohibition subject to licence is the very worst form of protection that can possibly be invented for times of peace.

In the first place, prohibition subject to licence means that no man can make forward contracts to import prohibited goods into this country, because he does not know whether he will get a licence for them or not, and uncertainty is absolutely deadening to commerce. In the second place, such a system must be bureaucratically administered. Our trade has grown up under an individualistic system, in which each man has developed his own trade in his own way. What man can be found, what bureaucrat, however wise, can be found, who can estimate the precise quantity of prohibited goods which ought to be allowed into the country and can see the question in strict correlation with the prices and profits that are being earned in the trades at home producing the same things. I say no man is wise enough to do anything of that kind, and I need not remind your Lordships that neither Russia, nor America, nor Spain, which I quote as the three countries having perhaps the highest prohibitive tariffs before the war, resorted to a system of prohibition of this kind. It is avowedly temporary, and it is a vicious system. Under a system of tariffs—I am not speaking in favour of a system of tariffs, as I am a Free Trader—all traders are treated alike; every importer has the same chance of importing. But under this system a licence is worth money; ex hypothesi the goods are in short supply, and the man who gets permission to import has obtained a permission which is worth money, and which he can sell, and I daresay sometimes does sell.

A licence of that kind, which is worth money, is a temptation to corruption. I agree with Lord Parmoor that it is no use mincing words about that. I do not suggest that there is any danger in the course of the next few years of anything like corruption coming into the Civil Service, but I can tell your Lordships what has happened in regard to export licences. There was more than one case in which men advertised in such a way as to suggest that they had special facilities for obtaining an export licence, and over and over again we had to bring them to book. There was one scoundrel engaged in a big firm who had advertised in this way. We naturally wrote to the firm and the man was discharged. We sent for him and made him alter the form of his advertisement. But it obviously is most undesirable that it should be open to anybody to advertise in such a way as to suggest that he has any special influence with a Government Department and can get favours which are worth money; yet that is the inevitable result of a system of licensing, whether for imports or exports.

Then, again, it is absolutely impossible to administer fairly a system of licensing. You cannot administer it fairly as between countries or as between individuals. Take the case of countries. Very soon after the Armistice it was found that rationing had been fixed for some prohibited commodities on the basis of a certain war year. The commodities in question were of interest to Canada, but Canada having been absorbed in manufacture for war purposes was not able to export them in that particular standard year, and therefore the 50 per cent., or whatever it was of the particular year, was unfair to Canada; and Canada naturally complained. The matter was put right. It came before the Cabinet and the Dominions were excluded from these restrictions. Were inclined to be indiscreet in regard to the question I could state how unfavourably impressed I was in the negotiations in regard to that matter by the bureaucratic attitude of certain people.

I take another case. Matches are subject to prohibition, and a certain proportion is licensed. Again a war year was taken. During that war year all our importation of matches came from Scandinavia, but before the war Belgium supplied matches to a very considerable extent. What was done was this. We fixed this war year as the basis of our supply from neutral countries when our own mal-treated ally, Belgium, ought to have had first consideration. Of course, the matter was put light, but what a pity it is that any exasperation should have been caused to Belgium in regard to a matter of that kind? It is all part of the system, and its unfairness must go on as long as you have a system of licences.

As to individuals I need not press the point; it is obvious and apparent. A man goes one day and gets a licence; his rival goes the next and, as the ration is filled, he is refused. A man who wants to import goods is referred to his trade rivals, and told he must go cap in hand, pay any price they like, because the ration is complete. That may be the natural way of doing business by a bureaucracy but it is absolutely odious to any self-respecting British traders. In addition it means high prices, and in many cases quite unnatural profits. As Lord Parmoor has said, and as it is admitted, high prices and profiteering are perhaps the main causes of industrial unrest at the present time.

Take an article in which the Government itself is interested—motor cars. We are not content with the 30 per cent. duty. Motor cars are prohibited from import; the Government has a great many to sell. I know trades which are being held up because they cannot buy motor lorries for trade at reasonable prices, and people forget the harm that is being done to those trades which do not come into existence because of high prices. All they can see is the advantage of high prices to the particular trades which are benefitted. How can the Government convince the country that it is in earnest about the question of lower prices as long as things of this kind go on?

Finally, there is the question of the tendency of trades to ask for protection under this very vicious system. When I was concerned with the matter I was much interested by one petition from a certain branch of salt workers, who tried to make out a case for the prohibition of salt of a certain kind from Spain. This salt was sun dried, and these people pointed out that the sun of Spain, being much stronger than the sun of England, it was desirable they should have protection from the effects of the sun in Spain. It reminded me of the imaginary petition of the candle-makers for excluding the sun, with which Bastiat made such great fun. If that kind of argument were allowable, what about cotton, copper, rubber, and a great many other things from tropical climates on which we are absolutely dependent for the existence of our industries. In order to stop this craving for protection it is necessary, as soon as possible, that this system of import restrictions should be put an end to. On the broad grounds that this system is unfair; that it is, as I have plainly stated, a temptation to corruption, leads to inflated prices, makes profiteering legitimate, and leads to unjustified hopes and ridiculous claims, I beg that it may be ended as soon as possible.


My Lords, the two noble Lords who have just addressed the House have raised a most interesting discussion and gone over a great deal of ground. I would prefer, however, to come back to the Question on the Paper, from which I venture to suggest we have travelled a considerable distance. The noble Lord has asked a Question with regard to the embargoes, but his speech was devoted almost entirely to the question of discrimination.


The discriminating embargoes.


He objected to the discrimination, but what he dwelt upon principally was the fact that by these embargoes the Government were able to use their powers of discrimination. I always feel myself very largely in agreement with Lord Emmott, but I could not quite understand one point he made when he was speaking of tariffs—that every would-be importer under the tariff system has the same chance of importing. I am not quite aware that that is the general principle of the tariff system, so far as I understood it. But with regard to the question as a whole, if I may come back to it, the Question on the Paper is "under what authority the Executive had placed an embargo on the importation of goods and commodities other than arms, ammunition and gunpowder." The restrictions on the importation of goods into this country, irrrespective of their origin, are imposed by Royal Proclamation. I need hardly remind your Lordships that since the war they have been in full progress, and that until the raising of the blockade the importation of goods of any kind was prohibited from enemy countries. I have before me the conditions under which trade is now permitted with those countries.

These restrictions are not imposed by the Board of Trade Regulations, or by Order in Council, but the Board of Trade is the Department responsible for preparing the Draft Proclamation for submission to the King The Act under which the Proclamations are issued is the Customs Consolidated Act of 1876, which my noble friend quoted, and Section 43 of which reads as follows:— The importation of arms, ammunition, gunpowder, or any other goods may be prohibited by Proclamation or Order in Council. It has been suggested that the words "any other goods" should be interpreted somewhat narrowly to mean goods of the same kind as "arms, ammunition and gunpowder." I admit that to the man in the street the question does not seem very easy, but with regard to the legal aspect of the question I will not give any opinion of my own. In view of the doubts expressed as to the legality of some of the import prohibitions having regard to the suggested interpretation of the section the Government consulted the Law Officers of the Crown, who advised that the expression "any other goods" ought not to be treated as referring merely to goods ejusdem generis with arms, ammunition or gun-powder, but ought to be construed without qualification or limitation, and as extending to all goods of whatever character. Therefore your Lordships will see that His Majesty's Government is advised that these restrictions on the importation of goods as at present imposed are quite within the limits of the law as laid down.


Might I ask whether it is the fact that, as has been publicly stated, certain traders who have ignored the Proclamations and imported goods have not been prosecuted by the Government.


I have no knowledge of any such case, but if the noble Lord will bring any such case forward I shall be very glad to see that it is thoroughly investigated.


I have no desire to detain the House, because the whole case was so fully and clearly stated by the noble and learned Lord below the gangway, and also by the noble Lord opposite, but I confess it does seem to me that the case having been so stated by those two noble Lords, and on lines somewhat broader than the mere terms of the question, that they are entitled to expect from His Majesty's Government some reply on the policy of the question rather beyond the quite clear and explicit reply which the noble Lord opposite has made in response to the actual terms of the question.

Both noble Lords argued with great force that the indefinite continuance of this policy is disadvantageous, for the reasons which they gave and which I will not attempt to repeat. They showed that these prohibitions do definitely act in restraint of trade; and altogether apart from what I may call the moral objections which Lord Emmott mentioned—namely, the practical certainty that a system of licences is almost bound to become a system of preferences—both noble Lords showed that the hampering process due largely to the uncertainty attaching to the licensing system is having a definitely damaging effect upon trade expansion at the moment when that expansion is of such vast importance to the country. I confess I do think that those two noble Lords, both speaking with great knowledge and experience, are entitled to rather more than the general reply which the noble Lord opposite gave them.

On the particular point of the uses made of the Customs Consolidated Act of 1876, and the interpretation which the noble Lord says was given to its terms by the Law Officers, it is somewhat surprising to a layman and I do not know whether the interpretation would be accepted by all lawyers of eminence. If that interpretation is correct, a great deal of the discussion which took place from 1903 onwards on the subject of tariffs, and the controversies which took place as to the introduction of a tariff by means of a Parliamentary Statute, appear to be altogether unnecessary, because it is open to His Majesty's Government, apparently, to impose any restriction upon any goods of any kind proprio motu and without asking the leave of Parliament. I remember in the course of that controversy, probably about the year 1904, calling attention to a singular provision in one of the earlier Customs Consolidation Acts—I forget the precise year, but I think possibly it was 1865 or 1866—which appeared explicitly to give the right of prohibition in respect of any goods carried in foreign bottoms of any kind; that is to say, to the surprise of everybody it was found that we were still living under the Navigation Laws. I remember that at the time the late Duke of Devonshire, who replied for the Government, expressed on behalf of himself and his colleagues of the then Administration complete ignorance of the existence of that power—a power which if it does exist has, I think, never been used—but this power under the Act of 1876 is very far-reaching and even more amazing, and altogether apart from the question whether the particular application of the power is wise or unwise, I sincerely hope that the matter will be cleared up one way or the other, and cleared up, as one would hope, in the only way in which it can be finally cleared up—namely, by the decision of the highest possible Court on the interpretation of the words of that Statute. In the meantime there will be a great many people who, like the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord opposite, regard the whole position as profoundly unsatisfactory.


My Lords, I should not have ventured to intervene were it not that this very morning, in the City, I had an illustration of the extreme inconvenience of these restrictions. Buying large quantities of stores for South American railroads which are British owned the storekeeper informed me that the effect of this constant uncertainty whether a licence can or cannot be granted is that orders will be placed, and must be placed, in other countries for absolutely necessary articles. It appears to me, therefore, that it is of the utmost importance, not only theoretically but practically—there is plenty of room now in our shipping to take our stores there—to our foreign trade that these restrictions should be removed as soon as possible. This appears to me to be even more important than the legal question.


My Lords, it seems to me that what the country wants to know is, how soon and how rapidly are the Government going to remove these restrictions? I attend meetings where many of the working classes express their opinions, and during the last three months I have not attended one of these meetings where this question has not been raised. Some of the speakers declare that the reasons the restrictions are not taken off is that the Government themselves are making a profit out of them.


What article is it alleged that that refers to?


I say that the speakers at these labour meetings absolutely accuse the Government of using these restrictions to make a profit out of the goods held back. I do not say there is any ground for that allegation. I have tried to argue against the accusation, but so long as the working classes have that idea the Government difficulties will tend to multiply, and the chances of industrial peace will remain far off.


My Lords, the noble Marquess said just now that in his view the noble Lords who have taken part in this debate have some ground for grievance against the noble Lord who spoke for the Government because he had not touched upon the general policy complained of in the speeches which they had made. I think that the terms of the Question on the Paper have entirely escaped the attention of the noble Marquess, for with his Parliamentary experience he would not have made that complaint if he had read the words in the Question to which the attention of my noble friend was directed. The Question is a narrow legal one—namely, under what authority do the Executive place an embargo on the importation of goods and commodities other than arms, ammunition and gunpowder. The noble Marquess knows perfectly well how these questions are dealt with, and that a representative of every Department cannot possibly be in both Houses. Information is properly sought for from the Department in relation, and only in relation, to the Question asked. Even my noble friend does not carry in his head the whole of our legal science and the whole of our trading economy, and he was invited to-night, and was only invited, to open the particular drawer which contained either his legal knowledge or the legal knowledge of those upon whom he had to draw for an answer to this Question.

I do not propose to follow those speakers who have dealt with the legal question, nor do I propose to discuss the opinions which have apparently been given by the law officers. I adopt that course for this reason. It may well be that in a different capacity I may have to give a judicial decision upon them, and it would be at that moment that I shall probably reach a conclusion as to whether I am in agreement or not with the view of the law officers. It is sufficient to say at this stage that the matter is a debatable one, but your Lordships would be very slow to withhold the respect that is due to the opinion of the law officers. Even law officers of the greatest experience are not always right, and it is for the Court to consider and decide whether they are right or not in proper process. In regard to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Emmott, I confess that I do not precisely appreciate what is in his mind. He said it has been publicly stated—I really do not know by whom—that traders who have disobeyed this regulation have not been prosecuted. I do not know whether the noble Lord meant to imply that there were cases in which there has been deliberate defiance of these regulations, and in which prosecutions have not followed because the authorities were not sure of their ground. If the noble Lord did not mean that, I cannot quite see what led him to ask the question.


Perhaps, by leave of the House, I may be allowed to point out to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack that he is possibly laying too great stress on his experience of the House of Commons when he accuses me of having treated the noble Lord opposite somewhat unfairly in having expected a more detailed reply from him. If the noble and learned Lord had sat in this House as long as some of us, he would know that it is a very frequent practice indeed for a debate of far greater dimensions than the present one to arise out of a simple Question placed on the Paper in such terms as those which my noble friend has used. The noble and learned Lord also may consider that the new practice of placing a star opposite some Questions is entirely due to the prevalence of this particular practice in the past. The presence of the star is intended to indicate that the Question will simply be asked by a noble Lord without a speech, but there is nothing to prevent all the other noble Lords in the House at the time, if they so desire, from carrying on the debate. I can assure the noble and Wined Lord that far oftener than not where a Question of this kind covering a particular subject is on the Paper it leads to a general discussion, and in the past has very often led to a full and complete reply from some Member of the Government.


I venture to enter a caveat against one thing that has fallen from the noble Marquess to the effect that the introduction of our new starring system makes it quite unnecessary for noble Lords to give notice of the subjects they raise. In unstarred questions, that, I do not think, ought to be the ease. I think the Department is justified in requiring some notice.


I have seldom received it in the past.


I know it has been the practice of your Lordships under our procedure and rules to cast your net very wide, but I would point out that, although noble Lords are entitled to make speeches as remote as they please from the actual words of the Notice, they must not blame the Minister who is answering on behalf of the Department if he cannot deal off-hand authoritatively with a number of most complicated questions of which he has not had notice. We have had a debate on the whole general principle of advisory committees, we have had a short review of bureaucracy since the time of Queen Elizabeth, we have had to deal with the whole policy of transhipment from ports oversea to other countries, currency and exchange have come up in three or four particulars, to say nothing of the question of trading with the enemy. Your Lordships are entitled to ask all these questions, and fifty more, but I hope my noble friend will not be blamed if, without notice, he does not, desire to reply.


I thought the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack challenged me on a point that he was referring to, and on which I felt bound to meet the challenge. What was in my mind was that I had heard it stated that certain traders had ignored these proclamations in a way which allowed the Government to prosecute them, and that the Government, feeling that their legal ground was very shaky, refused to do so. On the other hand, of course, it is obvious that goods must enter through the ports and through the hands of Customs officials, and unfortunately in this matter the Government have a chance of holding these goods, and it may rest with the trader to take proceedings against the Government.


If the noble Lord will give me a single case in which, after inquiry, he can say that he has formed the view that there ought to have been a prosecution and that there has not been a prosecution for some inexplicable reason, in order that I may ascertain whether that reason, which the noble Lord seems to think exists, in fact exists, I will see that inquiries are made. One word more in regard to what the noble Marquess said. It is quite true, as he reminded your Lordships, that I have been here a very short time. It is also true that I have been a close student of your Lordships' debates for, I suppose, twenty-five years, and I was very well aware of the practice to which the noble Marquess directed attention. The only comment I made was, not that your Lordships should not avail yourselves of your right to enlarge the debate as much as you think useful, but that you must not make complaint if a noble Lord does not come here prepared to deal with the specific points.

May I add one word upon the general question, because it is one of which I saw something when I was a Law Officer of the Crown, as I was for four years during the war. Everybody must agree that the system is a bad one. Every one must agree that it ought to be removed at the earliest possible moment. There is great ground for controversy whether in relation to a specific article that moment has arrived, but no one can defend the system, I will not say as a permanent element in our commercial life, but even as one that greatly outlasts the war. But the noble Lord, Lord Emmott, said with perfect truth that there was a great deal to be said during the war on behalf of the system. I will go further and say it was indispensable during the war, both from the point of view of killing industries and from at least two other points of view which, if time served, I could elaborate.

But the noble Lord himself said that, even when peace has come, there is a sort of period when these plants and machinery which we have harnessed to warlike purposes and which will necessarily require time before they can be re-established in their old channels, must be given some degree of protection. And I rather gathered that the noble Lord took the view that, in relation to that, this system, if widely and prudently employed, might be defended. If it relieves any apprehension, let me say that nobody is under any delusions at all on the point that this is a system which cannot be defended in relation to the claims of commercial men to get back to their own businesses in their own way at the earliest possible moment. Your Lordships may rely upon it that efforts are being made, and will continue to be made to get rid of it as soon as possible.


I thank the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack for what he has said as regards the hope of discontinuing what, I think, is a bad system, and I should like also to thank the noble Lord who represents the Board of Trade for the answer he gave. I do not think I could have put the specific Question without showing the conditions which prevailed which made the Question necessary. I thought, when I saw him the other day, that he understood that that would be so; but whether that is so or not I make no complaint if the noble Lord felt unable to go into any of the wider points.