§ Brought from the Commons; and read 1a.
§ THE FIRST COMMISSIONER OF WORKS (THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY)
My Lords, I desire now to move the Second Reading of this Bill. Your Lordships are aware that this measure has been passed in another place without any controversial discussion. In fact, it passed its Second and Third Readings without a Division. When this country was forced off the gold standard in circumstances now familiar to your Lordships a depreciation of sterling as compared with many foreign countries was inevitable. The Government at once considered the effect which that would have on food prices. Obviously, in a country which imports no less than four-fifths of its cheese, lard, and even a larger proportion of its bacon, butter, and sugar, to mention only a few of the staple articles of food, prices must be affected by a fall in the sterling exchange. The position as regards supplies was satisfactory in itself. There was an abundance of the chief articles of food, and so long as normal trade was 289 carried on there was no reason to fear that the country would be likely to go short of food.
The one cause, and the only cause, of disturbance in that connection was the depreciation of sterling. The Government's endeavours were, therefore, concentrated so far as was possible upon seeing that the retail prices to consumers were not raised unreasonably—that is, that advantage was not taken of the position to exploit the consumer by an immediate increase in prices against the possible effects of variations in the exchange. On the Monday following the suspension of the gold standard the President of the Board of Trade saw representatives of the traders in wheat, flour, sugar, butter, cheese, bacon, meat, oils and fats and other essential commodities. He also saw representatives of the Co-operative Wholesale Society and other co-operative societies, of the provision exchanges and the association of grocers, also representatives of the large multiple shop concerns as well as others who play an important part in the food industry of the country. From them all he has received the greatest assistance possible, and with them all he has been in close consultation. While, from the purely business point a view, prices in this country would have at once risen to the replacement cost of the commodity concerned as the price of that commodity was raised by the fall in the value of sterling, in fact the co-operation of the interests concerned has avoided any general attempt to increase the price of foodstuffs in the country.
The efforts of the Government and the trade interests concerned have been successful, and there has so far been little appreciable change in retail prices. Food commodities which are brought from abroad and passed immediately into consumption, such as bacon and butter from the Continent, have risen in price, but only in proportion to the increased cost which has been actually paid for them; and while some brands of canned goods, for example, have risen so far as wholesale prices are concerned, others have not, and I would venture to suggest that consumers must, for their own protection, exercise care and vigilance when they desire to buy these commodities. It is now just over a fortnight since the gold standard was suspended, with the con- 290 sequent fall in sterling compared with other currencies throughout the world. I feel sure your Lordships will agree with me that no one, looking at food prices to-day, could possibly imagine that such a change had really occurred at all, and very great credit is due to the importers, the wholesalers and manufacturers, and also the retailers of food, for the levelheaded and public-spirited handling of the situation which has enabled me to make such a statement as that I have just made. The Government has no reason to think that this attitude will not be maintained, and this, coupled with vigilance on the part of the consumers, should ensure that, whatever consequences may follow from the suspension of the gold standard, they shall not be exaggerated by exploitation.
I want to make it quite clear that in taking the powers contemplated by this Bill there is certainly no criticism intended of the attitude of our food traders. We have in fact no evidence whatsoever of exploitation. On the contrary, the efforts of the Government and of the traders themselves have given the public a benefit which, from the strictly business point of view, they were not actually entitled to receive. The food traders have played the game and the Government fully appreciates what they have done; but, like the public itself, food traders should be protected against possible action by individuals who may be seeking an unreasonable advantage. In introducing this Bill I am able to say that the trade representatives who have been consulted agree fully that such a Bill as this should be introduced and it has their full support.
The Bill itself requires but little explanation. It is a short, simple measure which gives the Board of Trade wide powers to make such regulations as they may consider necessary or expedient for the purpose of remedying or preventing a shortage or unreasonable increase in price of any article of food or drink of general consumption caused by the action of any person or persons who may be exploiting the present financial situation. There is no intention whatsoever of setting up a huge machinery of control of the kind with which we came to be familiar in the Great War, but it is necessary to take wide powers in order to be able to act promptly if any cases 291 of exploitation do arise. The powers, for example, would enable the Board of Trade, through persons whom the Board may authorise to do so, to take possession of stocks or contracts of any person who appears to be exploiting the situation. If it is necessary to use the powers they will be exercised in consultation with representatives of the trades concerned, and it will be possible if it is so desired to delegate powers to a trade association or to some other body, such as a municipality, so that they will be able to deal promptly and effectively with persons who are abusing the position. Penalties are provided for offences against the regulations and jurisdiction will be exercised by courts of summary jurisdiction.
The situation is, of course, entirely different from the situation which arose in the War. First of all there is no interruption of supplies. Supplies are continuing and we have every reason to expect and hope that the normal flow will continue. Apart from the financial question there is no obstacle to obtaining supplies. There is no difficulty in obtaining exchange for making food purchases and it is vital, as your Lordships will agree, that the ordinary processes of trade should continue. There is no intention to interrupt or to hamper those processes by the creation of a huge administrative machine of the food control type, but it is intended to prevent or if necessary to punish exploitation. After full discussion with the interests concerned the Government have formed the opinion that apart from the effect of falls in sterling there is no reason to anticipate higher food prices in general. There will be the usual seasonal variations, but the world position of supplies, as your Lordships are well aware, is satisfactory. In fact, in certain countries there is a glut in the market of certain food supplies. With the wholehearted co-operation of the food industries the Government will endeavour to see that any rise in price due to sterling decline is reasonable, and they will use their powers under the Bill to prevent and punish any exploitation of the situation at the expense of the people's food. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(The Marquess of Londonderry.)292
§ LORD SNELL
My Lords, it is not our intention to offer any opposition to the passing of this Bill, but inasmuch as it is a Bill of considerable importance it seems inadvisable that it should pass through your Lordships' House without a word of comment from this side. We recognise that it is a measure which is precautionary in its character and that it deals not with things that have already happened but with things that might happen under certain circumstances in the future. The justification for this measure is that it will help everybody concerned to remember what the community expects from them in the manner of fair dealing in the great crisis through which the nation is passing. If I expressed any doubt about this measure it would be rather in regard to the way in which it will be implemented. I very much hope that the vigilance of the Government will be keen and that they will really act as occasion seems to them to demand it.
One could criticise at length what seem to be omissions in the Bill, but that would not be helpful at this time. For instance, I cannot detect who is to prosecute or who is to decide on prosecution, nor can I find in regard, say, to a multiple company who is the person to be prosecuted, whether it is to be the secretary or the directors or whoever is concerned. Things of that kind really require some explanation but I do not intend to press them this afternoon. I hope, however, that the steps taken will really be adequate and will be immediate when the time comes. In the olden days I believe that persons of the kind the Government have in mind in this Bill were tied to a cart tail and whipped through the City of London. Being attached to humanitarian principles I do not desire to see that kind of punishment re-established, but I hope nevertheless that His Majesty's Government will take what action is necessary.
I cannot close my remarks on this Bill without reminding myself and your Lordships that during this Session of Parliament under the other Government there was an opportunity of getting this work done in another way, but every artifice of Parliamentary obstruction was indulged in by those now enthusiastic in promoting this measure to prevent the Consumers' Council Bill doing what it is now pro- 293 posed to do by this Bill. It is not that the Consumers' Council Bill outraged in unusual degree private liberty, because Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister, speaking in the other House the other day, said that this Bill is, to use his own words, infinitely more drastic than the Consumers' Council Bill.
§ LORD SNELL
It is sufficient to me to point to what Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister said. I only wish to say in conclusion that I think that this measure may be necessary in the circumstances in which we are placed, but we must never forget that what we really require in the long run is adequate organisation of the distributive services throughout the country so that when a crisis of this kind comes, if it ever comes again, it will be more easy to regulate than it is at present. We shall assent to this Bill as an act of faith in the belief that His Majesty's Government in this matter, at least, will really do their best to protect the interests of the consumers.
§ LORD MELCHETT
My Lords, I propose to address you for only one moment in support of the measure before the House. It is a measure which I think it is most essential to pass at this stage, and I am very glad that the powers contained in the Bill are very wide and drastic. The noble Lord who has just sat down referred to the attempts that were made under the previous Government to have some permanent arrangement of this kind, in order to provide a more satisfactory distribution of foodstuffs throughout the community, and to control prices. This question of prices is one of the most difficult that we have to face at the present time, and really nobody knows very much about it. We all talk a lot about food prices, but we are inclined to forget that one has to take the monetary value of wages into account in making calculations, and really this is a subject upon which very little is known. What is necessary is to try and control the monetary prices that we can see, so as to bring them into relation with the monetary wage that a man is receiving.
It is very interesting to see what the real course of wages and prices has been over the last fifteen years. A document has just been published by the Secre- 294 tariat of the League of Nations which gives some figures about this country that are so striking that I think it will be of interest to your Lordships to observe what has been discovered in the course of the work that they have done. In the fifteen years between 1913 and 1928, the annual consumption per head of various foodstuffs in this country has increased, in the case of butter—I am giving approximate figures—from 10 lbs. to 14½ lbs.; the consumption of margarine has decreased from 3¾ lbs. to 2¾ lbs., showing the steady progress towards a higher standard of living; the consumption of cheese has gone up from 5½ lbs. to 7½ lbs.; of coffee from ½ lb. to ¾ lb.; the number of eggs that the average person consumes has gone up from 56 to 69; the consumption of dried fruit has gone up from 4¾ lbs. to 6 lbs.; beef, which I think is the most remarkable of all, shows an increase in consumption by the average man and woman in this country from 22 lbs. in 1913 to 33 lbs. in 1928, an increase of 30 per cent.; the consumption of bacon and ham has gone up from an average of 13¾lbs. per head to 23 lbs.; of tea from 6¾lbs. to 9¼ lbs.; of tobacco from 2 lbs. to 3 lbs.; and the only article of consumption that really shows a big decline is beer, with a drop from 22 gallons to 16½ gallons. It is really an interesting observation that from these figures it is clear that there has been an increase of about 28 per cent. in the actual amount consumed per head in this country. That is quite apart from questions of currency or the value of prices or wages. The actual increase in the food consumed by the ordinary individual in this country over a period of 15 years rose by roughly 2 per cent. per annum.
That does show that we have made very substantial progress in the direction that noble Lords are so constantly urging. This Bill will help us to maintain the position that confronts us to-day, and I hope that the activities of those who will have to govern this country in the near future will help us to continue that increase. There is no greater mistake than to imagine that, because there is a slight increase in prices at a certain moment, it is necessarily going to diminish at all seriously the standard of living of the people of this country. There is still a very wide margin, for we have made great progress in past years, and a slight rise in prices, while it may be felt by housewives and others who have to make 295 purchases, will not seriously alter the progress that is being made by the population of this country from year to year. I hope that this Bill will be passed without any dissent, and will be used by the Government with all the force that they may feel to be necessary from time to time.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
My Lords, I do not feel that there is any necessity for me to add much to what I have already said on this Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lord opposite for the speech which he has made, and also for that of the noble Lord behind me, with the very remarkable and interesting figures that he gave us. The noble Lord opposite referred to the Consumers' Council Bill. I think he will agree with me that the procedure under that Bill was not nearly so expeditious as that of the Bill of which I am venturing to move the Second Reading to-day. I think he referred also to the Emergency Powers Bill. That Bill has been in existence for a considerable number of years, and could only operate on an extensive scale. This Bill gives the Government power to deal practically with eases whether on an extensive scale or not. The noble Lord asked a question, which was asked in the House of Commons also, as to who will be prosecuted. I confine myself to the answer that was given by the Attorney-General, who said that he was aware of the hardships that might be imposed on small people, and his main desire was to see that the right people were hit, and that the bigger people should come under the penalties and jurisdiction of the Bill. He went on to say that it would be for the regulations to provide for this and that—the regulations will be administered with common sense, and against the men behind the scenes, the directing brains.I do not think the noble Lord need have any anxiety as to who will be the prosecutor, and I have no doubt that this Bill, when it becomes law, will carry out the purpose for which it was framed.
§ LORD SNELL
There is no intention of making a poor salaried secretary a victim in a case where a big multiple company is concerned?
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and (Standing Order No. XXXIX having been suspended) committed to a Committee of the Whole House forthwith.
§ House in Committee accordingly: Bill reported without amendment.
§ Bill read 3a, and passed.