§ Standing Order No. XXXIX having been suspended,
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE COLONIES (VISCOUNT MILNER)
My Lords, I will not pretend that the Bill of which I have the honour to move the Second Reading is one of a class of measures for which, personally, I have any very great affection. I do not suppose that it is one for which the majority of your Lordships have any great affection, and you will not be particularly reconciled to it by my saying that it is an emergency measure, a temporary measure; a measure to meet 976 very exceptional circumstances. Arguments of that kind have been used so very often during the last four or five years in defence of a great number of unpopular though necessary laws and regulations, that people generally are getting a bit tired of them. But, my Lords, an argument may be threadbare, it may be tiresome, but it may still be right, and that is the case in this instance. It is an exceptional measure, an emergency measure, a rough and ready remedy, but it is for a very great evil which it is impossible for any Government to ignore and with which, I believe, it would be impossible for any Parliament not to attempt to deal.
I feel, my Lords, that our controversies at the present time would be less acrimonious, and that public discontent would be much less general, if only the people would realise how extraordinarily abnormal the conditions all over the world in respect of industry and commerce are at the present time, how dislocated trade still is throughout the world, how little we can rely upon the operation of those economic forces which in ordinary circumstances would come into play, to check anything like excessive profits. People put up with everything during the war. At the present time they are, quite naturally, much less patient of restrictive laws and regulations; but it was not so much the war as the economic disturbances consequent upon the war which rendered interference with individual liberty and with private enterprise, and innumerable restrictions upon trade and business, inevitable. That great economic disturbance throughout the world still remains. In places anarchy reigns supreme, and production is practically stopped. There are other countries where production is crippled to an unprecedented degree owing to various causes which are the result of the war. Transportation is crippled on land, and even transportation by sea, although somewhat recovering at the present time, is very far from being equal to meeting all requirements. There is a scramble for shipping, to-day, almost as great as ever there was, and above all, last but by no means least, there is the absolute chaos of the exchanges. What that means it would take me too long to attempt to explain to your Lordships, but there is no business man who does not realise how the dislocation of the exchanges in all the principal countries of the world, and the constant changes which are occurring, disturb and impede business to an extent 977 which is absolutely unprecedented in the history of the world.
These are only some of the causes of the disturbance which lead to the crippling of production and impede the free flow of goods, and which afford exceptional opportunities for the speculator and the unscrupulous trader to enrich himself at the expense of the community. My Lords, do not let me be supposed to hold out the hope that anything we can do by this measure, or otherwise, will lead rapidly to a general fall of prices. Prices are high and will continue high from causes beyond all human control. There is a general scarcity of almost all articles of common and necessary use, and no wonder—it would be a miracle if it were otherwise. For four or five years the productive energies of the world, enormously increased no doubt by the stimulus of the war, have been devoted very largely to the creation of engines of destruction. Wealth, by millions and millions, has been destroyed or blown into the air. Labour has been diverted from the production of useful and necessary articles of all kinds.
Prices are, of course, high. The supply of all the articles which the world most wants is for the reasons which I have given, short of the demand, and there is no way out of this position, at least there is no sound and enduring way, except one, and that is the multiplication of goods, strenuous labour directed into the right channels—directed to the production of food, houses, ships, machinery, and all articles of use and necessity to the great body of the people, not of luxuries or things which we can largely do without. That is the only real and ultimate remedy, but that will take time. I need not say that the general slackness in respect of work—very natural, we must admit, after the strain of past years, but which I think it is about time to put a stop to—the general slackness and constant unfortunate interruptions of work owing to industrial disturbances are checking, delaying, and may fatally prejudice the recovery for which we are all longing and looking, and which in any case, as I have said, can only be a slow and gradual recovery. Unless these things can be by some means stopped there may be no recovery at all.
I say, then, with regard to the general high prices, that there are reasons for them which it is beyond human power to deal with. But here we must distinguish from this high tableland of prices, if I may 978 use that expression. Above this level, so much above the level to which we were accustomed in former years, there stand out certain peaks of excessive dearness. There are quite a number of articles of common use and consumption—for instance, many articles of clothing—which, judged not by the pre-war standard but by the very much higher standard of prices to which we are unfortunately now accustomed, still appear startlingly dear. Again, in almost all articles among goods of the same kind there are between place and place and between trader and trader extraordinary divergences of price. These facts are notorious, and they have engendered a widespread suspicion that there are nefarious influences at work. They have caused something like fury- among large sections of the people who are convinced that they are being robbed. They may be quite wrong—in many cases no doubt they are wrong—and their suspicions may be unfounded. Investigation will show that in many cases there are really exceptional reasons—difficulties of transportation, exceptional price of labour, a hundred causes—which may justify these prices that appear so startingly high.
I say that in many cases these suspicions may be wrong, but in many they may be right; anyway there is a case for inquiry. It is that inqury which the Government feel it their duty to undertake, and to undertake instantly. No matter what people may say to us about hurried legislation, the need for prompt legislation is great, for there is going to be a regular rebellion against these high prices, as there have been rebellions in other countries all over the world, unless people can be shown that there is good reason for them, or that where there is no good reason an attempt at any rate is being made to curb them. It is with this work of inquiry that the Bill starts. If your Lordships will look at Clause 1, subsection (1), you will see that the Bill empowers the Board of Trade to investigate prices, costs, and profits at all stages, and for that purpose by order to require any person to appear before them, and to furnish such information and produce such documents as they may require. That is enforced in a subsequent clause by the Board of Trade having power to require any person appearing before them to give evidence on oath. No doubt the most important exercise of this power may be to insist on the production of trade books.
979 This power of a general inquiry into the costs determining the range of prices in certain industries is the keynote of the whole Bill. We want to get at the truth about these extraordinary prices, and surely, my Lords, this will be all to the good, whatever the result. In some cases no doubt it will be shown that a trade or a section of a trade is exposed to exceptional disabilities, and has, owing to the circumstances of the time, to which I have referred, to contend with exceptional difficulties which justify these apparently outrageous prices. In that case it is only fair to the people engaged in the trade that the fact should be established, and should be established by an impartial authority. The public will be more satisfied, and the honest trader will no longer be exposed to injurious suspicion. That alone will surely be a valuable—though as far as the effect on our pockets is concerned it may be a negative—result, but it will be a valuable result as affecting not only fairness to individuals but the general state of public feeling.
Some relief will be afforded to the general tension when it is shown that there are cases—no doubt there will be many cases—where people have been under the impression that they have been robbed and where it will be shown to have been a wrong impression. But in the opposite case if it turns out—as I have no doubt whatever that it will turn out in some cases—that the public really is being grossly exploited, then no one surely will contend that we ought to sit down under such a state of things. Action will be called for, and action in that case will be justified, because it will be based on thorough knowledge. Here let me just say, lest anybody should think that we were going in for a wide and indiscriminate inquisition into the price of every sort of article, that this Act is limited in its application, by subsection (7) of Clause 1, "to any article or class of articles to which it is applied by order of the Board of Trade, being an article or class of articles declared by the order to be one or one of a kind in common use by the public, or being material, machinery, or accessories used in the production thereof."
We cannot hope, we do not attempt, to deal with all the innumerable articles of commerce. The purchasers of luxuries, of goods other than the common necessaries of life, must look after themselves. One 980 would like to stop all exploitation, but there is a limit to what is practicable. The great object is to prevent people of all classes from being plundered in their attempts to supply themselves with the common necessaries of life.
But the power given by the Bill to the Board of Trade is not limited to investigation, nor, as I have said, would any one wish that it should be a case of exploitation had been clearly made out. The Bill accordingly goes on to provide in Clause 1 (1) that the Board of Trade shall have power to receive and investigate complaints that a profit is being made which in view of all the circumstances is unreasonable, and on any such complaint they may by order either dismiss the complaint or declare the price which would yield a reasonable profit, and require the seller to repay to the complainant any amount paid by the complainant in excess of such price. This is what I may call the disgorging clause, and it is no doubt, from the point of view of the general public, the most interesting provision of the Bill (I do not think myself that it is really the most important) and the one which is most likely to be of immediate application. It is clear that the investigations on a large scale into the operation of big branches of industry and trade which are contemplated by the first power of the Board of Trade to which I have referred will take much more time.
This clause, as I say, is likely to be of immediate application. I believe myself that its most powerful effect will be its deterrent effect, and that for one case in which a man is actually brought up under it there will be a hundred cases in which men will restrain themselves and put a limit to their greed of (rain rather than submit to the inquiry and the exposure which might ruin their business, even it it did not lead to their being subjected to severer penalties. For severer penalties than the mere having to disgorge unreasonable gains are provided in the Bill. In Clause 1 (2), which gives the Board of Trade power when it appears to them "that the circumstances so require"—which I interpret to mean in cases of very gross extortion to "take proceedings against the seller before a Court of summary jurisdiction," which Court of summary jurisdiction may impose a fine not exceeding £200, or imprisonment for a period not exceeding three months. These are the principle weapons with which the Bill arms the public authority for preventing the exploitation of the public.
981 There are, of course, a great many points in this Bill on which I cannot touch, but which will all, no doubt, come under review in Committee. But I should like to say a few words about the manner in which these powers for the protection of the public are to be brought into play. I think it is idle to speculate—no man can tell—whether the complaints of excessive prices which may be brought under this Bill will or will not be very numerous. All speculation on that subject is mere guesswork. My own personal view is that there may be a considerable rush of applications in the first instance, but that, as the working of the measure gradually comes to be better understood, the number will fall off. I may be right or I may be wrong about that. Anyway, it is quite evident that the number of applications will be immensely greater than anything with which a public Department like the Board of Trade could itself deal. I do not suppose indeed that it will itself deal with any cases except those of a wide range of importance, such as may arise out of the operations of big wholesale dealers and manufacturers, perhaps of big trade combines. The vast majority of cases of complaints which are brought forward will have to be dealt with by those local committees which the Board of Trade is empowered by the Bill to invest with all its own powers under the Bill, with the exception of the power of fixing prices. As I conceive the situation, the main business of the Board of Trade will be that investigation into prices, costs, and profits in particular big branches of trade which may seem to call for such investigation to which I have already referred, and the general supervision of the local body to which, under Clause 2, it is enabled to delegate all or any of its powers, except the power of fixing prices.
No doubt the success or failure of the measure will depend very largely upon the composition and the working of the local committees which are to be appointed by the local authorities at the instance of the Board of Trade. On this point, all I can say is that our experience of the numerous local bodies which during the period of the war have been instrumental in carrying out—under the control of the central authority but with a great measure of independence—the exceptional powers created by Statute for the purposes of the war, in the case, for instance, of the Military Service Acts and more especially in the case of the 982 local committees under the Food Controller which have been extraordinarily successful in their work—our experience of them gives us good ground for hope that this unbeaureaucratic form of machinery will be both popular and effective.
Whatever may be said of this Bill, it cannot be said that it is a measure for empowering officials at Whitehall to go and interfere with everyone's business throughout the country. It is a measure very largely for the protection of the public by putting them in a position to protect themselves. At the same time, the recourse which, again on the analogy of the Military Service Acts, is given from these local committees to central appeal committees ought to prevent any possibility of injustice to an individual from local or personal animosities or from trade jealousies. There is, besides that, an important provision which was inserted in the House of Commons—I think it is certainly a good Amendment—to the effect that a member of a committee established by a local authority shall be disqualified from acting in any case where he is a trade competitor of the person against, whom the complaint under investigation has been lodged. So much about the reasons for the Bill, the main powers conferred by the Bill, and the machinery by which those powers are to be exercised.
I do not wish to detain your Lordships much longer about specific points, but there are three matters of sufficient magnitude to call for some notice even in this merely introductory speech. I refer In the first instance to the provision giving the Board of Trade power to fix prices, which provision was inserted in the House of Commons as an addition to Clause 1 (1) (a). I have already read those most important and vital words about the power of the Board of Trade to investigate prices, costs, and profits at all stages. The words here added by the House of Commons are—And on any such investigation they" [that is, the Board of Trade] "may by order fix maximum prices.I know that there are many people, whose opinion is certainly entitled to respect, who think it would have been a better way of dealing with this difficulty (which we all recognise) by attempting to fix maximum prices all round and relying upon that alone to check profiteering. It is a proposal which has been most carefully considered 983 but which on investigation appeared to the members of the Government to be an impracticable method of carrying out the object which we all have at heart.
It is a very difficult subject with which to deal, but I think I should be justified in laying down the principle that the fixation of prices, in any case where you are not able to control the article from start to finish, is a most dangerous power which may very likely result in checking supply and production, thereby actually increasing the root of all our difficulties. That is not always the case; and, as I have said, in those comparatively rare cases where the authority which fixes the prices is able to control the article throughout, I think there is a case very often—as with regard to some of the particular articles of food—for the fixation of prices; but I do not object at all to this having been put into the Bill as I think it is a useful reserve power. There are cases in which is may be effective, but I am sure that it would be wise—as I am certain is the intention of the Board of Trade—to be very cautious in the exercise of it. Let me give one instance of the sort of difficulty that may arise. Take the case of an imported article, perhaps of considerable importance to the consumer. After careful investigation you fix a price which allows—considering what the importer has to pay for the article in the country of its origin and what he has to pay on transportation—a reasonable profit here. The moment you have fixed the price, up goes the cost in the country of origin. No doubt you may say, "You can alter the price here." Yes; but you cannot be constantly altering prices. These negotiations take time; meanwhile, until the alteration has been effected, there is a loss on that article with your fixed price. What happens is that the importer ceases to import, you at once get an increase of scarcity, and your last condition is worse than your first.
I am not arguing against the power; I wish merely to point out two things. One is that now we have the power we must be careful in our exercise of it; and the other is why we found it was impossible to rely only on this very doubtful and dangerous power in order to try to check the evil of high prices. It would have been an easier and pleasanter thing for the Government simply to have taken powers to regulate prices all round, but it would have been, in my opinion, wholly ineffective 984 as a general measure of control. The power of fixation of prices is one which it may be useful to have, and to which in certain cases resort may be had.
The next point of large importance to which I should like briefly to refer is the power contained in Clause 4, by which the Board of Trade may, if they think fit, authorise local authorities, subject to such conditions as the Board may impose, to purchase and sell any article or articles of any class to which this Bill applies. I know that this provision is highly controversial. I also know that in the opinion of many really competent judges it is regarded as perhaps the most valuable clause in the whole Bill. I am told that something of the kind has already been done successfully in various parts of the country although the power did not absolutely exist. That may or may not be the case. What is certain is that in some foreign countries where this method of trying to check high prices has been adopted—that is, where the authorities themselves have become dealers simply in order to keep a check by competition upon the traders—it has met with a very large measure of success. I think that the anxiety which it excites in some breasts is due to the idea that it is the commencement—the argument used against it is our old friend "the thin end of the wedge"—of a general system of muncipal trading. It is nothing of the kind. This is a six months' Bill. Can it be supposed that any local authority is going to plunge, especially when it is directed to proceed on a commercial basis and not by way of subsidy or expense to the ratepayers, into any large operation in the way of muncipal trading under a power which it will only have for six months? What is much more likely is that local markets of a temporary kind may be set up, or even the humble barrow may be called into requisition to compete with the excessive prices, where they exist, which may be charged by local shopkeepers. I hope that whatever the objection is on principle which your Lordships may take to any introduction of a system of municipal trading you will bear in mind the special circumstances of the case and not try to deprive us of the power of making an experiment which may fail, and if it fails may very well be abandoned, but which may also prove one of the most important and valuable means of checking the evils against which this Bill is directed.
985 You will be relieved to hear, my Lords, that I have come to the last point with which I propose on this occasion to trouble you. I should like to say one word with regard to a very remarkable clause which was inserted into the Bill in the House of Commons. It is what is now called Clause 3—"Operations of trusts, etc." It runs—Without prejudice to the generality of the powers under this Act, the Board of Trade shall obtain from all available sources information as to the nature, extent, and development of trusts, companies, firms, combinations, agreements, and arrangements connected with mining, manufactures, trade, commerce, finance, or transport, having for their purpose or effect the regulation of the prices or output of commodities or services produced or rendered in the United Kingdom or imported into the United Kingdom, or the delimitation of markets in respect thereof, or the regulation of transport rates and services, in so far as they tend to the creation of monopolies or to the restraint of trade, and the Board of Trade shall for the purposes of this section utilise the powers of investigation and of appointing committees conferred upon them by this Act.The investigation into trust and combines existing for the restriction of trade and for the artificial augmentation of prices is no doubt one of the most difficult operations in which a Government Department could engage. I doubt whether within the six months during which the Bill will be in force it would be possible for the Board of Trade to carry out the provisions of this clause with regard to any considerable number of such trusts and combines. It may do so successfully in one or two cases. If the result is satisfactory, that part of the Bill, at any rate, may, by the good pleasure of Parliament, be prolonged.
What I would, however, specially like to say to your Lordships about this is that it may be argued, "Well, the introduction of this clause into the Bill in the House of Commons is a perfectly new departure and an immense enlargement of its original object and scope." It is a crossing of t's and a dotting of i's, and it is imposing upon the Board of Trade perhaps more definitely than was originally intended certain duties; but the duties themselves do not lie outside the scope and principle of what I have described as being the keynote and the basis of the whole measure—namely, that contained in Clause 1 (1) (a) which gives the power to investigate the prices, costs, and profits at all stages. Undoubtedly in the regulation of prices the power to look into the operation of these great trading trusts which determine whole 986 sale prices, and in some cases retail prices as well, is fundamentally more important than any action yon may take against the retailer, and if it had not been for the existence of that power in the Bill as it was originally drafted I think the measure would have been open to the criticism—to which it has been exposed, but in the circumstances unjustly exposed—that it attacked the small profiteer but let the large profiteer go scot free. That first Clause of the Bill is one which is directed against profiteering on the great scale, and it directs against it the only weapon by which I think it can be defeated; that is, the weapon of thorough investigation and publicity. This new clause, to which I do not in any way o-ojeet—it may be an advantage to put it in—is only writing large, as I say crossing the t's and dotting the i's of what was one of the most important provisions of the original measure, and one which was always within the contemplation of the Government.
I feel that I have been a very inadequate exponent of a very difficult and complicated subject. If there are points on which your Lordships require more elucidation—and I have no doubt there are ninny such points—it can be given, and I shall be very glad to give it so far as lies in my power in the further discussions of the Bill. I have only two or three remarks to make in conclusion. We have been reproached in the matter of this Bill with hasty legislation. It is true that the legislation is very hasty. I regret it as much as anybody, but the consideration given to this matter has not been hasty. The Bill, good or bad, is the result, as the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack knows as well as myself, of prolonged and most anxious consideration on the part of the Government.
You may criticise its provisions. There is no conceivable measure dealing with this subject which would not be open to any amount of criticism. It is very easy to criticise its provisions. It is very much more difficult to make out a case for alternative provisions, and it is a remarkable fact—and the Lord Chancellor will bear me out in this—that a great number of the suggestions which were made in the House of Commons for alternative methods of dealing with the trouble were suggestions which had been considered, and most carefully considered, over and over again by us, and which we only gave up because the weight of argument and expert advice con 987 vinced us that they were not practicable. The matter is one, I need not say, of extraordinary complexity and difficulty, and I hope your Lordships will take it from me that, whatever the defects of the measure may be and however regrettable it may be that we are obliged to discuss it in such a hurry—that I fully admit, and I feel it myself—whatever the defects of the measure may be, the proposals put forward by the Government are not the result of hasty deliberation and have not, in any case, been lightly adopted. They are the result of a very careful process of the winnowing of all possible suggestions for dealing with a matter of the greatest difficulty.
You may say, "If the thing is so difficult, so uncertain and so complex, why do you not leave it alone?" You cannot leave it alone. This is a universal evil all over the world. Profiteering is the cause of more disturbance, and it is a more powerful weapon in the hands of those who wish to destroy all social order than any other which they have got. You have it all over the world. In those countries where the authorities would not deal with it, the people have dealt with it themselves by rioting and rebellion. We do not want to leave matters to get to that point in this country. We believe—we are certain—that though these provisions may not be the absolute best, they are, nevertheless, provisions that will make a great and material difference and will bring about considerable relief to vast numbers of people. More than that, we are convinced—and I believe your Lordships will agree with me—that the mere fact that the Government and Parliament are not sitting with folded arms in the face of this great and admitted evil, but are making, at any rate, a serious, earnest and strenuous attempt to come to the relief of the suffering population, will do something, and will do a great deal, in itself, to allay that general indignation and resentment which might very soon take really dangerous forms, if nothing were done.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Milner.)
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
My Lords, the noble Viscount, when uttering his final sentences, must have been well aware that the full sympathy of this House would go with him in regard to any general measure 988 having for its object the bringing of the whole question of supply and demand within reasonable limits; but I think the very full exposition of the Bill which he gave must have convinced your Lordships that he viewed with some apprehension the manner in which the points taken up by the Government in this great hurry would be accepted, and, still more, whether the methods adopted are entirely calculated to achieve the results he desires. Before I say a word on that subject, might I remind the noble Viscount that if the goodwill of this House could have been shown with regard to this subject, it has been shown by the appeals which for months have been made to the Government, to take action on their own account to prevent the state of affairs which they are now endeavouring, in great haste, to remedy.
If I merely mention the appeals which have been made, almost without response, I think I may convey to the Government that this House has not fallen short, for any want of goodwill, in this great work. First of all take the question of prices generally. The price of an article depends, as we all know, upon the sufficiency of the article. It requires an extraordinary organisation to enable any man or body of men to corner a large section of articles, if the supply is sufficient. We have, over and over again, almost implored the Government to open the ports, to take off the restrictions on a large number of imported goods. I believe that on the last occasion inquiry was made whether there were not some 700 articles on the tabooed list. I ask the noble Viscount now, Has that list been brought down? Are the Government doing their share to give to the country the fullest amount that we possibly can obtain by imports from abroad, or are they continuing, as they did for months after the Armistice, a restriction of imports most necessary to our manufactures, which is calculated to raise the price of every article? The second point on which we have pressed has been the delay of the Government in realising their own war stocks. They put those war stocks at £1,000,000,000. At intervals in the last few weeks there have been large sales of linen and other material, but has an substantial progress been made with those sales? In this way it is possible to do more to prevent profiteering than you can benefit the purchaser by punishment.
989 In the third place, Does the noble Viscount really think that the whole of this mischief is caused by unfair trading? Look at the question of the currency. Every time the Government has given one of its fresh benefactions, involving an enormous amount of money, you have had an inflation of the currency which has raised prices to the disadvantage of the whole community. With all these points before us I appeal to the Government not to think they are going to deal with profiteering only by the method of this Bill. It is quite impossible that a subject like this should be adequately dealt with in this House between Friday and Monday next. The urgency of it is, no doubt, great, and although these provisions were hastily considered in the House of Commons we perfectly realise that some measure must be hammered out in the course of the next few hours. May we not ask then that, side by side with this attempt, which I fear is a very crude one, the Government will take the larger steps which are necessary, and not delay too long.
I desire to make three or four criticisms on the Bill itself, and I do so not from a desire to make difficulties but with absolute sympathy with the object of the measure. The noble Viscount justified the insertion in Clause 1 of the provision for fixing maximum prices. That was done with strangely little consideration. It is probably a necessary power the Government should have in certain cases, but is it necessary or desirable in all cases. Take the desirability. Is it really possible to go over the whole field of British industry and insist on the Board of Trade taking action if they find it necessary? What does it mean? It means that everybody who feels himself aggrieved will go to the Board of Trade and ask them to interfere and fix the maximum price of the article hey are supplied with. Will it be possible for the Government to fix the price of pig-iron, steel-rails, all of which were only rendered possible by the subsidy from the Government, which I believe everyone would object to see revived. If you are not going to do it you may interfere in the most serious way with trade; and if the President of the Board of Trade has to do this his energies may be wasted on the much larger questions.
Take shipping. All sorts of deals are going on in shipping. There is undoubtedly great dislocation in shipping all over the 990 world. Are the Government going to say that, if the Board of Trade are sufficiently pressed, the unfortunate Minister will have to reconsider the price at which A may have bought from B, who may have bought from C, who nay have bought from D. I do not want to multiply instances but I suggest that we should consider, before the Committee stage, whether an Amendment which was moved by Colonel Walter Guinness in the House of Commons does not really meet the object in view. A provision specifying that maximum prices should apply to food, clothing, boots, and household necessities, would I believe cover nearly the whole of the province which particularly affects the classes to whom the noble Viscount alluded. The great amount of traffic from hand to hand and across the counter would be touched by such a provision, while the immense mass of the staple trade of the country would remain unfettered as at present. I commend that consideration to the noble Viscount with the desire that it should prove of some service.
I differ from the noble Viscount on one point. He thought that one of the chief results of the Bill would be its deterrent effect. I do not believe it. A great deal more would be done by leaving prices open than if the Board of Trade fixed the prices of raw material. In some cases it may be excessive. In all Bills which have interfered with prices, and with traffic, it has never been found that the deterrent effect has been such as the noble Viscount believes, while it has always been found that those who consider themselves aggrieved rush in and invoke assistance because they have nothing to lose and may gain a great deal. You will flood the Board of Trade. I believe, with an amount of business and complaints which will hang up the chief and immediate action we all wish to see taken.
I hope the noble Viscount will consider sub-section 5 of Clause 1—where a person is connected with a company and cannot prove he was ignorant, he is alleged to be guilty of what has transpired. I do not want in the least to absolve any person connected with companies any more than private firms or individuals. It is a question, however, to which the high legal authorities in this House should address their minds. It is a most serious change in the English law that you should assume a man guilty until he can prove himself innocent. 991 Surely before you proceed to give a man six months' imprisonment, or fine him £200, it is the business of the prosecutor to discover that he was a party to the offence and that he did not exercise proper care and safeguard the actions of those with whom he was connected. I suggest that because I think it is a point which was dealt with at a very late hour in the morning in the House of Commons.
The third point is with regard to trusts. Trust law is a very serious question. I believe it has baffled the United States of America in their operations for many years past. Is the noble Viscount quite sure that it is wise in this Bill to attempt to lay on the shoulders of the President of the Board of Trade such a prodigious inquiry as that involved in Clause 3? It covers the whole field of British industry. He wants, and we want him, to be able to put his finger on the plague spots and bring to book those who are making a profit out of the country's misfortunes. I think this huge inquiry must be either a dead letter or will snow under the distinguished official to whom it is proposed to entrust this duty.
The last question which I would raise is with regard to municipal trading. There is a very strong prejudice against municipal trading, and it surely ought to be the last resort. Is it wise, until you find there are no other means of reaching your goal, that these great powers for fixing prices and enforcing supplies should be hampered by attempts on the part of the municipalities, at a time when they should be busy with the Housing Question, to enter into competition with private concerns the members of whom are members or citizens of the municipalities? I should have thought it would be far better that we should have kept to what is I believe still existent, the power of Government purchase and Government control, which has been carried as far as it should be and which covered a large number of our special commodities. I am not urging that you should set them on foot, but that you should set in action in the same direction the machinery of hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of municipalities, to buy supplies and enter into contracts, seems to me to be a remedy worse than the disease which we want to cure.
I will only say one word more before I sit down. I believe the country is thoroughly sick of control, and that if we begin again we should do it by the smallest amount of 992 control consistent with our object. I heartily wish the Bill well, and I urge the noble Viscount to realise that any criticisms which I have ventured to make have been entirely with the desire that the object which we have in view should be carried out, and above all that in the wish there has been to spread the net sufficiently wide we may not have spread it so wide as to cause it by its own weight to fail in its object.
§ LORD EMMOTT
My Lords, even when most violently opposed to the noble Viscount, Lord Milner, I feel almost disarmed by his frankness and obvious sincerity. With the objects of this Bill I have great sympathy, but I do not think I ever heard during twenty years Parliamentary experience an important Bill damned with such faint praise as this Bill had bestowed upon it by the noble Viscount. He said that people had lost patience owing to the strain of long years of war. So also is a convalescent impatient, but a wise doctor does not try to improve his condition by quack remedies. What we need now is to get back to normal conditions in this country, but my doubt about this Bill—of course, I am not going to oppose the Second Reading—is whether it does not prolong the period of uncertainty in this country. I am not sure that it does not form part of a vicious circle in which we are, and that the remedy is not going to make the disease worse rather than better—whether the Bill is not a useless plaster, giving some local relief but doing nothing to remove the real cause from which we are suffering.
If I may enter upon the larger question touched upon by the noble Viscount and say what I believe we want to do and what must be done before any real improvement occurs, I would suggest that the Prime Minister, with such unique powers of appealing to the public and such imagination as are possessed by Mr. Lloyd George, ought in the present condition of affairs to tell the country frankly that we are in for a bad and difficult time, however well we behave, and that tinkering, partial measures will be of extraordinarily little me, that if only the country will be brave and patient and will work, things will come right in time, but that a new heaven and a new earth cannot be made, after the enormous waste of this war, by extravagant expectations which, when once formed, can only do damage if they are not realised.
993 The Government, however, have brought forward this measure. They appointed a committee one week to look into this question, and two or three weeks later they told the committee that it was of no further use and they were going to introduce a Bill. The best which I can say for the Bill is that it is a Bill of good intentions, but good intentions are proverbially the paving stones to a very doubtful destination. I have no animus against the Government, but I must say that the Government have not a good record on this question of profiteering. They have set a bad example hi some respects. During the years of war they made enormous profit out of oils and fats. It is true that a great deal more than that profit has gone in the subsidy on wheat, but look at the effect of the two transactions. The profit on fats and oils was made by keeping down the price paid to the natives of Africa, vet those natives had to pay more meanwhile for their cotton goods. It is no consolation to them that some of the profit thus made went for the payment for wheat from foreign countries. That is one instance of Government profiteering, and I could give others.
I was glad to hear the noble Viscount (Viscount Midleton) deal with the question of restrictions and embargoes on our trade. A few months ago it was the deliberate policy of the Government to keep up the prices of a great many commodities by the restriction of imports. That policy was avowedly based on the advice of Committees which I believe were largely manned by interested manufacturers. We have never had the composition of those Committees made public, but I believe they were largely manned by interested manufacturers. May I invite any of your Lordships who have the Bill in your hands to look at Clause 3. The Board of Trade is now to obtain from all available sources information as to the development—I am picking my words but I think quite fairly—of firms and combinations connected with manufactures having for their purpose or effect the regulation of the prices of commodities produced in the United Kingdom or imported into the United Kingdom, in so far as they tend to the creation of monopolies, or to the restraint of trade When I saw those words I really felt inclined to say to the Government: "Physician, heal thyself," because they are responsible for exactly the very condition of things which they are now instructing the Board of Trade to inquire 994 into. Their policy has been vacillating and uncertain to the last degree in regard to these trade questions.
I expect your Lordships all know your Pickwick, and you will remember the story of the Eatanswill Election. I think it was the hero, Mr. Pickwick himself, who said that he shouted with the crowd, and when asked what he did in the case of two crowds both of which were shouting he said that he shouted with the loudest. I do not want to be disrespectful to His Majesty's Government, but that is the course that they have pursued with regard to these trade matters. When the manufacturers shouted loudest about import restrictions the Government immediately went for a policy of restriction, now that the consumer is shouting they go for a policy of investigating the very policy of import restrictions that they have themselves set up.
Truly and wittily this Bill has been called a Manifesto rather than a Bill. It gives the impression to me of a Minister in a hurry, and a Minister who is not fully seized of British methods. Just when trade was recovering in many ways, a comparative stranger to our methods is to have all the powers that are given to him in Section 7 to which the noble Viscount alluded. I must say that I take an altogether different view of the effect of subsection (7) of Clause 1 from that taken by the noble Viscount. I should like to ask for a list of articles that could not be included under subsection (7), and if we got a list of those articles I am perfectly certain that it would not include any of the great articles of trade which are the foundation of the prosperity of this country. Everything of real importance under subsection (7), as I read it, is to be made the subject of the powers given to the Board of Trade under that subsection. I suppose that this Bib is inevitable, but I think that it will frighten honest traders. That is my real objection to it. I am afraid that it will have a deterrent effect upon honest traders, and that the dishonest man will run his chance. That is always the effect of legislation of this kind. I should have preferred to have certain commodities—as few as possible—regulated through the whole course of trade, as suggested inferentially by the noble Viscount opposite, rather than this Bill. Even such a course as that has disadvantages, as we all know, because Government regulation of price takes no cognisance of quality. Such a 995 course could not take proper cognisance of quality or grading. Those differences can only regulate themselves in a free market; they cannot regulate themselves under Government control.
The real trouble about profiteering will not be materially affected by this Bill. The real trouble is, I think, twofold. In the first place all that annual income returned as profits has been during the course of the war materially lessened by excess profits. The Government has never attempted to deal with the large question—I am afraid that it may now be too late—of the enormous increase of capital that many traders have achieved during this war—increase of capital which has not been subject to excess profits duty in any shape or form. That is one thing, and, after all, the working people of this country know it. I believe that is one of the great causes of dissatisfaction and unrest. My other remedy is the one I have already stated, that I think it is time the Government made known to the people as far as they can—and I am sure the Prime Minister could do it extraordinarily well if he gave his mind to it—the really dangerous and difficult position in which this country stands, and until that is done we cannot by little measures of this kind do much to get rid of the feeling of unrest in the country.
§ VISCOUNT BURNHAM
My Lords, there is no one less willing than I am to prolong debate on any subject in the sun of this hot day, but I think it would add to the scandal of the manner in which this Bill is being enacted if it did not have adequate consideration here. I hardly thought that it was a compliment to the intelligence of your Lordships' House when the noble Viscount in charge of the Bill said that the Government were fully seized of all the information that they required, just after they had appointed a Select Committee of the other House to inquire into the problem in all its bearings. There is no one who would wish to treat lightly a Bill the policy and purpose of which is to set out to reduce the scale of prices on all articles of use by the public. At the same time your Lordships must recognise that this is an industrial revolution. It may be that the Board of Trade—for which the noble Viscount can only speak indirectly, and can hardly pledge them in doing so—does not mean widely to apply its power of fixing prices; still 996 you have given power to a Department of State to fix prices, if it so wish, for the whole range of commodities in common use throughout the country. It is quite true that the principle is not new. The principle was contained in the old Acts of the Edwards, of forestalling and regrating which Dr. Adam Smith denounced with so much force a long time ago. It was contained in a conspicuous degree in the famous decree of the Convention of 1793 fixing the maximum price of corn in France. We all know what was the end of all those experiments. I think that the noble Viscount must rather have been laughing within himself when he trotted out here those hoary fallacies of the Middle Ages as if he really believed in them.
I should like first to point out how unfairly this Bill is presented to the country. First of all, it is given the short title of "Profiteering." That is a kind of term which is applied very widely, and which it is impossible to define, but I beg your Lordships to recollect that in another place it was said—and said without contradiction—that the greatest profiteers of this country were the landlords. Of course, everybody here knows that to be transparently untrue, but it shows the difficulty of defining what profiteering is, and you can only imagine that the title was given to the Bill to make it practically impossible for anybody in either House of Parliament to oppose or amend it. I should like to see any candidate—and I speak with some experience—standing up before a popular audience in a great constituency and avowing that he had voted in favour of profiteering. Hardly anybody dared to vote against the Second Reading of the Bill or to vote against it at any subsequent stage, and I venture to say that it was very largely because of the skilful title which was given to it by the distinguished professor who carried it through the other House, and who seems to be less ingenuous than most professors are supposed to be in these matters of tactics.
But the question, of course, is whether this Bill is going to achieve any purpose at all, and we are unwilling to do anything here or elsewhere to throw away a chance of bringing down the range of prices. The arguments have been mainly that this Bill would have a terrorising effect. That was the argument used for the old Acts of centuries past—that the profiteers (they 997 were not called so) would be terrorised by the mere fact of heavy penalties being held over them. That was constantly used by those in the House of Commons who did not care to vote against the Bill. Therefore the Bill is defended on two lines of argument, first, that it is merely brought forward for parade purposes, that it is what in America they call Buncombe legislation; and, secondly, that it is brought forward without any intention of its being widely put into operation, and that it will be used simply for the purpose of making those who are deriving unconscionable profits from trade amenable to public opinion.
I use the argument because later on I wish to ask the noble Viscount to consider how far publicity is guaranteed to the tribunals set up under the Bill. The noble Viscount said that, he attached most importance to the method and system of inquiry which could be set up by the Board of Trade into articles of prime necessity, rather than to any work of local tribunals. I venture to point out that the Board of Trade is thus undertaking a task of such a vast complexity that it would require not one, but a hundred Royal Commissions to do the work adequately. It cannot be suggested that the local committees can do this work. The noble Viscount said that the real cause of the rise in prices is mainly to be attributed to the convulsions of exchange and to the enforced scarcity of means of production and means of transport. Does he imagine that the committee of Little Peddlington will be able to appreciate how far the convulsions of exchange and the difficulties of transport have had to do with prices of articles manufactured mainly from raw materials of foreign origin?
Perhaps in these matters the best thing is to give the House one experience derived from a particular trade of which one may have some knowledge. I will take the paper trade, for example. Nobody can say that paper is not a necessity of life, and that it is not an article of consumption by the public. I am not thinking only of newspapers because, as the noble Viscount, who is skilled in these matters knows, newspapers only take one-sixth of the whole of the paper production, of the country, and printing only one-third. As a matter of fact, I am told that every person dealing in a shop now insists more than ever upon the articles bought being carefully wrapped, not once but twice and three times in paper.
998 The community, that is to say, has reverted to its pre-war habits. As the noble Viscount knows from many cases which have been tried before the Courts, the weight of paper enters very materially into the cost of articles of consumption of the, very poor There are many famous cases which have proved that, and which have turned upon that and that alone. May I tell him that during the war the Paper Commission set up by the Government, which had power of restricting the importation of raw material never ventured to do more than fix a rough and ready price for paper consumed under contracts made before the war? They always professed the view that it would be beyond their ken and power to fix the price of paper outside the range of such contracts. I dare say there are a hundred grades and kinds of paper used. Paper mills range from the sweet and simple methods of Messrs. Portal's mills for the manufacture of bank paper to the huge concerns such as you find in Kent and in the North. When the Government fixed a schedule for the Paper Commission for the prices of waste paper to be used in manufacture there were thirty or forty different categories to be dealt with.
It is impossible to consider an article of that sort without seeing an endless series of special inquiries arising from them before the price could be fixed with any fairness, either to the producer or to the consumer. I point this out, because it is material as showing the want of reality in a good deal of the powers that are now sought under the Bill. But I also would ask the Government to say how far they are going to look into their own misfeasances at the present time. The high price of bricks is entirely caused by the fact that the Government is holding up the whole supply. They commandeered for the purpose of their great housing schemes the great quantity of bricks in the country, and at the present moment (I speak as Chairman of the Building Trades Committee of this part of England, and on the information given me by both employers and employed) the price of bricks for purposes outside these operations is artificially raised because the builders cannot get any quantity of the bricks released from Government control. That has been stated by the industrial Council of the building trade; it is the opinion of the trade. Therefore everything points really to the 999 wisdom of the advice which was given by my noble friend, that the only effective method of reducing the price of the necessities of life and of commodities in general use is to open the ports and remove the restrictions. As paper makers I admit it might not be pleasant for my colleagues, or confederates, to have the ports opened for the importation of paper. You are only allowed at present to import 25 per cent. of the supply manufactured at home. But if that were done it is quite certain that the price would fall. I am not dealing with the effect on the labour market—that is another matter—but the price would fall, and if you mean to reduce prices, and want to reduce prices, I think I can prove to the House that paper does enter into the price of nearly every commodity which the poor buy.
The old remedy resorted to throughout history whenever there has been a special scarcity of raw material, whenever there has been an abnormal rise in price, must be followed and adopted, and as soon as possible you must open the ports freely and you must increase, so far as you can, the facilities of shipping for that purpose. That is dealing with the main question of the supply of material on a great scale. I should say I do not think that the great trades have as a rule any reason to be afraid of the inquiry which is incorporated in Clause 1 of the Bill. Personally it seems to me a very good thing that in the Bill should be included also the proposal to hold inquiries into trusts, rings and kartels which was put forward by the Royal Commission which reported not long ago. I wish it had been done before. It seems to me that this would be an effective means of checking that which in some cases may be a great evil, and which any rate is an object of great suspicion by the public.
You cannot imagine that the power of inquiry into price—although I am aware that the smaller tribunals have no power of fixing prices—would be exercised except lay the Board of Trade. That must result in an expenditure far in excess of the £50,000 which the Government say will be absorbed in the process. The smaller committees which will be appointed I take it in every borough and in every urban district throughout the country—though that is not laid down in the Bill—will have to deal not with the big questions of articles of necessity in large dealings but with the petty dealings between small 1000 shopkeepers and their customers. I am honestly afraid—I believe the experience of every noble Lord in this House must be the same—that we are likely to reap a harvest of what I think the great poet calls "home-bred hate."
In this process every small tradesman will be called upon before the local committee and asked to make good his claim to the price he charges for various articles. A general inquiry by a committee of the Board of Trade is only setting up a series of Royal Commissions, and, as I have said. I do not think there is much reason for being afraid that injustice will be done by the Board of Trade or by those who act under its immediate future. Far be it from me to suggest that the committees in the various districts will act as a rule with prejudice or with unfairness. At the same time, it is a very hard and difficult thing to put the small shopkeeper before his fellow citizens and to ask him to account (as he will have to do) for every penny that goes to make up the price of the small dealings in which he is engaged. There is great temptation for the committee to take a prejudiced view. These committees cannot be considered as being quite on all fours with the Military Tribunals, and they necessarily start without any special knowledge of the trade. They can judge only from their general notions of what a fair profit ought to be.
In the other House, in the course of the Committee stage on this Bill, Mr. McLean who is one of the Labour leaders, stated that the price of an article ought to be fixed by the charge made for the highest efficiency in production and that nothing else should be allowed to count. I doubt whether there is a small shopkeeper in the country who could justify his charges if they were judged on that principle. The small shopkeeper has not many friends here I dare say, or even in the House of Commons; but you have to consider that he has "over-head charges"—as they would say in discussing industrial matters—for rent, and very often for assistance, which have to be spread over a very small number of commodities on sale. Naturally they increase proportionately to an inordinate degree. What is a profit to the small shopkeeper would be a gigantic gain to the great trader or to the co-operative society. If it is the intention of this House, or of Parliament, to crush out the small dealer everywhere, or if they contemplate 1001 it as a result of the machinery they are setting up under this Bill, that ought to be known. There is no doubt that perhaps the most economic means of distribution is through the great agencies and co-operative stores particularly in the north of England, and here in the South by those great firms whose names are household words in our midst. But no shopkeeper can justify his scale of profits as tested in that way. I hope injustice will not be done, but I think it is very likely to be done in some cases.
In the same way the noble Viscount spoke very hopefully of the power which is generally to be given under this Bill to municipal authorities to set up street markets. It is very easy, of course, for a local authority which has not to pay—which will not be surcharged with any loss it may make—to set up a department for dealing with one special line of goods or in one particular part of a general trade. There, again, the local authority could not pay rates to itself, and it would not be called upon to pay rates at all; it would have nothing but the day by day expense of carrying on a market in that particular line which it thought most favourable to its operations. I can only say that if this power is used I hope it will not be used except for a short period, and then that there will follow what there ought to have been long ago—namely, a general inquiry into the increase of market accommodation throughout the country. There is, as a matter of fact, a great paucity of markets in London and elsewhere, and no doubt the price of goods is artificially increased by the want of proper means for distribution and sale. But that is another matter.
I do not want to misrepresent the noble Viscount in any way, but he looks, I think, to public opinion, as brought into being and interpreted by these committees, as the principal means for effecting the object of the Bill. That cannot be done without publicity; therefore the newspaper Press is once more called upon to convey to the public faithful and accurate reports of the proceedings so that public opinion may not only be fully informed but may also be able to express itself in the various cases which will arise. I conceive that there will be an intense interest taken in the towns of the country in local proceedings, far more than in any general inquiry by the Board of Trade. The newspaper Press is in a considerable difficulty in this matter, 1002 and I have been asked by their representatives throughout the country to bring before the Government the expediency of extending to the Press for this purpose the qualified privilege which it enjoys under the Law of Libel (Amendment) Act of 1881, and the Amending Act of 1888. The Press has no general privilege for reporting what is not fair comment. Reports must be bona fide and without prejudice. At the same time, unless they are protected in this way in the report of proceedings taken before local Tribunals—though they are called by that name I think the title is an unhappy one; "local committees" would be better—they will not be able to do so with ally reasonable security.
Under the old Acts, as the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack knows, absolute Privilege is given to the reports of Parliament, of Parliamentary Committees, and in certain other cases; also, privilege is given to the reports of meetings of municipal bodies and of public authorities of a like character. But I do not think—I speak with great deference—that such a privilege would extend to the meetings of sub-committees appointed by a Department of State although the Department of State itself might, of course, be able to issue any report, or, more than that, to have its proceedings accurately given in the newspaper Press. Under this Bill these bodies may issue reports even when they sit in secret, and the power is retained by the Board of Trade of excluding the public from these Inquiries. Those communications might and would no doubt be privileged. I am dealing with the reports of these crises which, although these bodies are in no sense judicial (I am sorry to say), will take place with evidence not given on oath and with allegations freely made by old men and women as to hardships they may or may not have undergone. It is desirable in the interests of justice that there should be a fair and accurate reporting of these proceedings; otherwise that part of the Press which is most circumspect in its doings naturally will not want to put itself continually in a difficult and dangerous position; therefore it will either not report the proceedings or will give only an abbreviated, and, necessarily sometimes, an ineffective report.
I do not think there is very much difficulty about the matter; but it is of far more importance than appears at first sight. Public opinion can only have its 1003 expression, or mainly have its expression, through the newspaper Press of the country. Altogether I cannot say that I do not feel grave misgivings as to what the result of this legislation will be. It is said to be only temporary. There is hardly an important social measure in our time that has not been temporary in the first instance and its operations have not been continued either under the Expiring Laws Continuance Acts or by re-enactment afterwards. I do not know whether the best result of the steps we are now taking may not be to gain the information upon which a wide policy of trade regulation may be founded. I understand that to be an argument largely used by the promoters of the Bill. It was said by Mr. Bright that a country which could comprehend and act upon the lessons God had given it, would never be found wanting in times of crisis. Perhaps the lesson we shall learn from the operation of this Bill may teach us wisdom upon the great subject of our industrial commercial welfare in the future; and I hope, at all events, whatever legislation is undertaken will not be in the frantic, one would almost say the panic-stricken, haste in which we are asked to legislate now. I venture to make these suggestions to your Lordships' House, but I will not press the noble Viscount to give me an answer now. I dare say he will consider in Committee, if he is favourable to giving the privilege of publicity to the proceedings of these bodies, what words are apt for the purpose. I should be only too glad to accept them, because I think the Government and the newspaper Press have a common interest and a common purpose.
§ VISCOUNT MILNER
I quite agree with the noble Viscount. The public and the newspaper Press are both interested in this matter, and certainly the report of the proceedings of these Committees, if they are fair and accurate reports, should have the benefit of the privilege to which he refers. I am not quite sure whether they would have it without our putting express words to that effect into the Bill. If, however, on investigation I find that special words are necessary, I shall be happy to move an Amendment to that effect.
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
My Lords, I ventured a few nights ago to make an 1004 emphatic protest against the manner in which Bills have, in this session in particular, been sent up to our House from the House of Commons. In the case of this Bill, which my noble friend has very properly criticised as a panic-stricken Bill, and in the circumstances under which it comes to us and under which it was carried, so we are informed, in an exhausted House of Commons, practically disabled by absolute fatigue from giving to the subject the care that it deserves, I cannot refrain, with the permission of your Lordships, from making a few observations in that direction against it to-night.
The noble Viscount who introduced the Bill said that it was a measure for which he had no affection. I can well under stand it, and I think the day will come, and at no distant time, when he will have even less reason than he has now for any affection for the measure of which he is the spokesman. The noble Viscount told us I in his opening observations that he thought our controversies here, and the general discontent existing at this moment with the Government, would be less than they are if we were to remember the war and the general consequences which have fallen from it. He went on to say, "I want to know the truth." What are the causes which have produced this state of feeling, which he described in some cases as one of absolute fury among some classes of the people? I am not in the least surprised at it, because this was the answer which he himself gave to his own question. What were the causes? The shortness of supplies of all things wanted by the people and the high prices which they had to give for them. These conditions, he said, had caused a positive fury, and the question I am going to ask the noble Viscount is how the Government have tried to remedy these consequences. In my opinion there are two causes which perhaps more than anything have contributed to these high prices and to the shortness of supplies. One of them the noble Viscount himself said was "exchange." I agree with him there. That, however, is not the only thing; for one of the most remarkable things in the career of this Government has been that they have never lost a possible opportunity of increasing to an enormous extent the amount of wages paid to the workers in this country.
There is nobody more anxious than myself that every man who does a good 1005 day's work should have a good and a fair rate of pay for it; but there are limits to everything, and the first result of these enormous increases in wages has been immensely diminished production. Everybody knows that. At one time it has been in agriculture. Great measures were taken two years ago—the noble Viscount took part in those debates and he will remember perfectly well, when proposals were made for increasing arable cultivation to an enormous extent, that I took part in the debate and suggested as an Amendment that the first thing to do was to see that the requisite labour would be there. We asked the Government to give a guarantee on that subject. They ended by agreeing to that demand, but there has never been sufficient labour since then. Wages have since gone up to the enormous height that they are now, and all the work that was done then for increasing arable cultivation, or nearly all of it, has been completely thrown away. Everyone knows—you can go through the country where you like—that at the present rate of wages, and the difficulties with regard to labour, the land which was ploughed up is now going back again of its own accord to grass, and vast quantities of it have been growing nothing but thistles and weeds.
The noble Viscount spoke about exchange. What have the Government done to deal with that question? It is a most unfortunate and extraordinary position into which this country has fallen. The exchange is so much against us that there has been nothing like it for years; it never has been so within my recollection, and I think you will have to go a long way back into history before you find anything of the sort. The Government, however, were warned of this two years ago by Lord D'Abernon. What has been done since then? Have you taken any steps to try and improve the exchange? You have done exactly the reverse. You have inflated the currency in this country by the issue of millions upon millions of £1 notes. That, in itself, is alone sufficient to have raised prices enormously, and you see the result in the exchange between ourselves and America to-day.
I do not want to delay the House. I do not know that we could do any good whatever by anything we can say here to-night, unless, indeed, there was a majority in this House prepared to throw out the Bill, and 1006 there is not one. Nor do I think, in all the circumstances, that it would be advisable to do so after holding out this prospect to the people, although I fancy the people will be greatly disappointed when the time comes. The noble Lord was confidant that what he was pressing to-night—the adoption of this Bill—would be both popular and effective. It is for that reason that I have reminded him of what occurred on a former occasion when he and I had to take prominent parts in the debate to which I have referred. I claim that I was more of a true prophet on that occasion than he was, and I have no doubt that I shall prove so again in this particular case.
I should like to remind him of another debate which we lied here when I brought forward what was practically a vote of censure on Lord Rhondda who had fixed prices upon article after article in, as I thought, a most unwarranted manner. What was the immediate result of that fixing of prices—a result which the noble Lord could not deny in debate? It was the immediate disappearance of almost every article upon which these arbitrary prices had been fixed. And now, it is to the fixing of prices in the same way, that you look in order to appease the discontent of the people, caused by the high prices which they have to pay. What will be their feeling, if the result of your endeavours on this occasion is the same as the result of the efforts of the noble Lord of whom I have just spoken; if the articles disappear, or become fewer instead of increasing, as the result of your action in putting maximum prices upon them? I think we ought in these respects to be guided by the experience which we have had even through the War as to the result of fixing arbitrary prices.
Remember that you are now going to give to the Board of Trade the most outrageous powers that ever were known. I can recall the time when a distinguished statesman in this House—I think it was in this House—said that the Board of Trade had always been the worst Department in the whole of the Government, and the most unpopular, because of the man who at that time was the chief official in charge of its business. I do not know who is at the present moment its chief official and I should be very sorry to make any reflection of that kind upon a man of whose proceed- 1007 ings I know nothing. I have made it quite clear, so far as I am concerned, that I am entirely opposed to the passing of this Bill, but I imagine that we have no alternative. We have not the power to throw it out. Even if we had, after what you have held out to the people, I would not be responsible for doing anything to cause them even greater discontent that they feel at the present moment.
After all, what is this Bill? What is the guise in which it comes to us? As the noble Lord said, the Bill is introduced apparently almost in a panic and it comes from a House which was not even in a physical condition to give it anything like the full attention it deserved; and then we are asked to deal with these enormous questions—all these new powers that are being conferred on a Government Department—at a moment's notice. I heard of the proceedings in the House of Commons, but I had no opportunity of seeing the Bill until I came to this House this morning. That is all the time that is thought by the Government to be requisite for the consideration by one of the Houses of Parliament of a Bill giving to a Government Department powers which have never been heard of before and which, unless they are used with the greatest possible caution, instead of getting you out of your difficulty, will land you, I am persuaded, into a far worse position before very long than you are in at the present moment.
§ LORD PHILLIMORE
My Lords, it is indeed a melancholy result of Coalition government that one should see a distinguished statesman with a distinguished record which, without impertinence, one may attribute to him, supporting a Bill which, I feel convinced, must be contrary to all his traditions and all his training. A distinguished member of a college nearly as distinguished as my own in the great University of Oxford, he must have learned to laugh at the laws against forestalling and regrating; he must have been impressed with Bentham's argument against the usury laws and must have had rubbed into him, and almost taken in with every day at Oxford, the impossibility of artificial control of prices and the desirability of giving free handling to trade, and looking for the higgling of the market to bring about the right result.
We have been in great trouble. We are in great trouble. But the only way to get 1008 out of that trouble is to be courageous and to return to first principles. The longer we go on as we are, the worse we shall be. I can imagine the commission assigned to the noble Lord in the Cabinet. I should put it in the language addressed once to a converted heathen—Gentle Sicambrian, burn what you used to adore, and adore what you used to burn.That seems to me to be the commission given to the noble Lord when he was asked to support this Bill. I will do him the respectful justice to say that he insisted largely on the powers of enquiry and research—a kind of research studentship for the Board of Trade. The President and his officers may research as much as ever they please, so far as I am concerned, if they will not have a fresh army of clerks at the expense of the taxpayers to conduct those researches, and if they will find time—poor things!—to attend to their legitimate business and not prolong correspondence over a great many months.
But apart from research, the Bill has all the evils of interference, with none of the advantages. Maximum prices! I should have thought we knew enough about them. Do your Lordships remember the time of food scarcity when a number of poor people—I call them poor; I mean small householders with limited means, fairly large families, and one or two servants—discovered (happy thought!) that they could buy a rabbit, which was not then subject to controlled price; whereupon rabbits went up, naturally enough, to a great price. What did the wiseacres of the Food Control Committee do? They put on a maximum price, with the result that rabbits disappeared from the market. That is the lesson I wish members of the Government would take.
At this hour, and in this thin House, and with the intimation from both sides that this Bill is not really going to be defeated (though I would be glad if it were defeated) it is no use my troubling your Lordships with a long speech. I have made my protest as an impenitent Cobdenite, Gladstonite, and Free Trader, and I venture to prophesy that you will do no good until you return to sane principles of commerce. Having done that, I will take up a more modest and humble position. I will take my position as a lawyer, and I will ask the attention of the noble Viscount to the passage to which Lord Midleton referred—subection (5) of Clause 1. To begin with, the grammar is wrong.
§ VISCOUNT MILNER
It should read "Where a person convicted under this section is a company the chairman"—the words "the chairman" have been dropped out.
§ LORD PHILLIMORE
Thank you; that explains it. But has the noble Viscount thought how this is to work? "Shall be guilty"—Does it mean that he is convicted? Does the conviction of the company thereby make the chairman guilty, or does it mean that thereupon there may be separate proceedings against the chairman, or managing director, or the officer concerned, in which he may be proved to be guilty. I confess as a lawyer I am quite unable to say what the meaning of the clause is. Without perhaps going so far as Lord Midleton in his assertion that nothing of the kind is known, because there is something like it in one of the Unseaworthy Ships Acts, I venture to say that it is going far indeed to enact that the chairman and every officer concerned in the management of the company (the chief clerk may stand for that) shall be guilty of a like offence unless he proves that the act took place without his knowledge. I feel certain that on consideration His Majesty's Government could put that clause into a form less likely to do injustice.
Then again in subsection 7 there are these words, "or class of articles declared by the order to be one or one of a kind in common use by the public." I would suggest four articles which the Board of Trade would be perfectly justified in saying should come under these words, and I ask your Lordships whether you are prepared to think there should be either profiteering alleged, or maximum prices, given in respect to them—namely, bicycles, photographs, gramophones, and newspapers. Those are four articles in common use by the public, and you may have the Board of Trade saying—I do not know why they should not—that to charge 2d. for a newspaper is a very illegitimate form of profit-erring.
There is one commodity in which there is more profiteering than in any other—and that commodity is labour. It is 1010 profiteering which ought (I will not say to be prevented, because to be consistent with my views persons should be able to sell their labour in the dearest market) but which ought not to be encouraged by the Government; and it is a profiteering which, almost alone, is at the bottom of our misfortunes. Let moral suasion be applied to those who are profiteering in this matter, let it be pointed out that they are the people who are really raising prices, and much more good will be done than by this Bill.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.