HL Deb 04 August 1942 vol 124 cc159-67

LORD SOUTHWOOD had the following Notice on the Paper: To call attention to the administration of the regulations governing the tenure of licences by traders in food who engage in "Black Market" operations: and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, In bringing this subject before your Lordships' notice I will not detain you for more than a very few moments. The subject of systematic illicit dealings in foodstuffs has been before this House on more than one occasion, and I make no apology for bringing this most important matter to your Lordships' notice once again. The number of persons engaged in this odious trade, is, I am glad to think, probably less, proportionately, than in many other countries, and doubtless the enforcement of the very heavy penalties since March last under the Defence Regulations has had to some extent a salutary effect. We have all been very glad indeed to see the accounts in the Press of the drastic action taken in the Courts in imposing these heavier penalties, and to know that the penalties themselves and the publicity given to them have had some effect in discouraging this type of crime.

But the activities of the commercial Quislings who still indulge in this insidious and despicable trade are not inconsiderable and must be having a very serious effect on the public morale. The man in the street demands, and I think rightly demands, that the Government should pursue them ruthlessly and remorselessly. I know that the noble Lord the Minister of Food is keenly aware of his duties in this respect, and is trying to eradicate this evil from our national life. For the Black Market is obviously a national menace. It preys on our food supply, the very life blood of our national existence; it flouts justice, it frustrates the Government's efforts to distribute our food equally and fairly, and it encourages theft, conspiracy, bribery and corruption. I am bound to say that His Majesty's Government were none too thorough in their earliest efforts to cope with the Black Marketeers. I believe that representations were made to the Government before the war that the only way to check the growth of Black Market operations in this country would be to proceed forthwith to the licensing of all dealers in commodities likely to be in restricted supply or subject to price control. The Government recognized the wisdom of that course to the extent of instituting on the outbreak of war a system of licensing for all retail food traders. But, most unfortunately, a similar system of universal licensing was not at first introduced for wholesale dealers, and so the door was left wide open for the intrusion of those who nefariously exploited the national emergency for the purpose of private gain.

Not the least of the evils of this Black Market is the way in which it is affecting firms of high repute and respectability. Like a poisonous weed, it is choking and destroying all the things that we regard as decent and honourable in our dealings between men and men, and the more it is left alone the more it will flourish, until at last it will become difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate. Here in Britain we are proud—and I think I may say justly proud—of our long tradition of high commercial morality. It is appalling to see how swiftly our business codes, built up over centuries, can be damaged once these destructive influences have set to work. The nation desires that the Government shall, without delay, take the strongest possible action to exterminate this menace.

This action can be along two main lines. On the one hand, it can take the form of imposing very heavy penalties, both monetary and personal, for breaches of the law. On the other hand, it can take steps to put dishonest dealers out of business altogether. In totalitarian countries the punishment for Black Market criminals might well be the firing squad. That is not our way. British justice is British justice and, under Providence, it will remain British justice. Incidentally, as an instance of British justice, your Lordships will remember a case not long ago—only a few months ago—where a man of enemy alien origin, charged with murder, was, even in spite of our preoccupations with the war, given in effect three trials, the last one taking place in this House, before the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack and four other eminent Judges. I merely mention this as an example of the meticulous fairness of British justice. We in this country, I hope, will never descend to the level of totalitarian countries. But punishment as provided by our laws, we are agreed, should, especially during the war, be prompt and drastic in order to have the maximum deterrent effect alike on the wrongdoer himself and on those who may be tempted to imitate him.

My object in addressing your Lordships is to ask the noble Lord, the Minister of Food, how far he has considered a more stringent use of his powers to cancel the trading licences of persistent and large-scale offenders. I feel sure your Lordships will agree with me that these culprits should be entirely barred from access to the supply of goods which may become the subject of improper transactions. No doubt some may argue that this is punishment superimposed on penalties decreed in the Law Courts. That contention may be quite valid in peace-time, but we are at war, fighting for our very existence—for all we have and are. We have welcomed the Order already made which increases the penalties that can be imposed in respect of a Black Market offence up to a level intended to take all the profit out of the crime. But the difficulty as I see it is that the offence actually proved against a culprit may be, and in most cases certainly is, only one out of a series of such offences, about the rest of which evidence is lacking or incomplete. These are not isolated lapses in an otherwise blameless career. They are the coldly and carefully planned violations of the law by someone who knows how to make illegality pay a profit.

Now that the Minister of Food has extended his system of licensing to cover practically all forms of dealing in foodstuffs, he has in his hands a weapon—a potent and a most effective weapon—to cut off this evil at its source. All food trades are now under the vigilant eve of the noble Lord, the Minister of Food, and his enforcement officers are equipped with very considerable powers. It seems to me that the noble Lord has the remedy, the effective use of which should, within measurable time, make the Black Market a thing of the past. Let him revoke the licences of these racketeers, and so completely prevent them from trading. Here, indeed, is a ideal opportunity to make the punishment fit the crime. I believe that some time ago a promise was made in another place by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food that, in appropriate cases, this course would be followed. My purpose to-day in raising the question is chiefly to give expression to the popular desire that this remedy shall be ruthlessly applied, and to ask him to give us and the public the latest information on the matter.

Your Lordships will have noted that I have confined my strictures to a given class of offender. We are confident that the Minister of Food will strive to exercise his powers with appropriate firmness and with strict fairness. I do not for a moment suppose, for example, that in the case where an employer is fined because of the misdeeds of an employee, acting without his consent and without his knowledge, he would take the extreme step of depriving him of his licence. Nor am I specially so concerned at the moment with a costermonger who overcharges a few pence, or any other trader who is guilty of a single minor lapse—not that I condone either of them. What I am concerned with is the cunning, callous, and completely unscrupulous person who systematically offends and expects illegality to pay big dividends. I hope the noble Lord will be kind enough to give your Lordships some assurances on these points. May I ask him, too, what is the proposed procedure about border-line cases? I mean those in which there are elements of doubt or possibly mitigating circumstances. What machinerFy is there, I wonder, for an appeal?

As I have indicated, it may be suggested that the double punishment—one by the Courts, another by the Ministry—is excessive. I think I may assure the noble Lord that stern measures will be warmly welcomed by most members of the public. After all, there are innumerable cases of persons, law-abiding citizens, who through the exigencies of war have had to forfeit their businesses or give up their property. There are many thousands who have lost brothers, husbands, and sons in the service of the country. They certainly have no sympathy to spare for the man who loses his business because of a crime, a mean sordid crime, against his fellow-men in the hour of the nation's peril. The Ministry of Supply has powers to remove inefficient business men from their jobs. The Ministry of Agriculture can turn a bad farmer out of his farm. Inefficient business men and farmers hamper the war effort. How much more so do the criminals who gamble in food. If it is a question of pity, let us pity the people who are exploited. If it is a question of justice, let us first be just to the public.

Let the noble Lord who administers austerity with so much sweet reasonableness mete out his punishment with a firm and unsparing hand. Men who go in systematically for Black Market transactions are unfit to be used as links in the chain of national service of food distribution. They are unworthy to be favoured with a licence by His Majesty's Government to carry on a profitable trade when, under the pressure of war conditions, honest citizens are being forced out of business. Therefore I ask the noble Lord, the Minister of Food, to be good enough to give us some indication of the steps he is taking to stamp out altogether this abominable traffic which is degrading to our national honour and destructive of our national life. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Southwood, if I may venture to say so, places your Lordships in his debt by the persistency with which he pursues this subject, and he does indeed in the process give me great strength. There are no two views among respectable people as to what ought to be done in this matter. I have taken the powers, and I must convince your Lordships, if I need indeed convince you, that I will exercise them. It is perhaps much more important that I should convince those who attempt to transgress that I will exercise those powers than that I should convince your Lordships. I take this responsibility very seriously, and I believe I can count upon the support of your Lordships' House in the actions that I take. I know that it is proper that we should temper justice with mercy. I find it very difficult, when dealing with this particular sort of person, to stop and think about mercy. I cannot but think about all the ordinary common folk of the realm who are being robbed by such people, and it is they, I think, who have claims on our pity.

I have but one fear about this debate, and that is not fear as to the opinion of it in your Lordship's House, or indeed as to the opinion of it in this country, but I am a little concerned that it should not get out of perspective when reported abroad, because news, as the noble Lord knows, so much better than I do, is a very extraordinary thing. The news of good behaviour is no news at all, and the news of bad behaviour is good news. There must not be any doubt that this Black Market business is a profoundly evil thing, and I endorse entirely all the noble Lord has said about the pernicious and corrupting nature of its influence on our national life; but it is a very small thing, I am glad to say. The extent to which there are Black Market operations in this country is really remarkably small. Of the total offences against the food laws not more than .01 per cent. of the traders of this country commit any offence at all, and I am bound to say that I have very great sympathy with some of the offenders against the law. We have so many laws, they are administered, of necessity, not by the principals of the firms, but by their staffs, often not trained staffs, often very temporary and very new staffs, and if those people fail to display proper notices or if they make the small extra charges that they most certainly ought not to make and for which they ought to be most severely reproved, they are not crimes against the State, they are just the ordinary peccadilloes that might almost be put on the same level as going thirty-one miles an hour instead of thirty, if your Lordships remember the days when you had any petrol with which to go anywhere.

It is not of these offences, however, that we are talking, but the extent to which there are people who are deliberately endeavouring, for their own profit, to go into a whole range of crimes. I would like to emphasize that. So often the Black Market offences are not merely an illegal charge for food. They begin with theft, they begin with people being led into theft, and they go through the whole range of rather despicable crimes in which it is very often extremely difficult to find the brains behind the crimes. Those are the people that I am after. My enforcement officers are searching for them and searching not only in conjunction with the Ministry of Food, because these people do not care whether they are dealing with food or with clothing or what they are dealing with so long as they are going to be able to make a profit out of it. They are even prepared, some of them, to deal with their country and make a profit out of that. We are all working together now, in different sections of Government Departments, pursuing these people. I hope that that statement will, at any rate convince the noble Lord that I am taking my duties and responsibility in this matter very seriously.

The noble Lord raises another issue. He asks me what I am doing with the marginal case. There are two forms of marginal case. There is the person with regard to whom we are not sure whether he has committed a crime or not. In those cases we are warning the people concerned because, if a warning will fulfil the purpose of prevention, then that is all that is necessary. The other cases we take to Court so that they may be judged. When a case has been before the Court and it has been adjudged that the person concerned is a criminal, that is the end of the man's punishment from the point of view of the law. But I have another responsibility. I am the Minister who licenses people to conduct trade in food in this country, and I am bound, when a person has been convicted before the Courts, to ask myself whether I was right when I licensed that person to carry on the food trade of the country, and on the evidence before me I come to a conclusion. I have to conclude whether the person is likely, as a result of having been publicly punished, to be a person whom I can trust in the future to look after the food trade of the country as a person licensed by me. Now the responsibility for that judgment must rest on the Minister himself.

The noble Lord, Lord Southwood, has asked me, is there any appeal? It would have been possible for me to institute a tribunal to which people could appeal. Then I would have been able to come to your Lordships and say that the tribunal had gone into the matter and I had accepted the decision of the tribunal. I have not taken that view of my responsibilities. We are not dealing here with a question of law. There is no technical issue involved; there is just a simple question of fact and of the history of a man and of his transactions in business before he was convicted. On that I feel competent to come to a conclusion. Therefore I have not attempted to share responsibility with anyone else. The line I have taken is that if the record of that man in business—and I am only concerned with his record in business—shows that he ought not to be licensed, then I will remove his licence. I am bound to say that I have met with the other side of this issue on different occasions, because while people will urge you to take the strongest possible line of action, when you have taken it, they invariably discover that the man had a wife and that he had some children, that he had invested the whole of his money in this business, and that you ought to have a heart. I am so sorry. I have put away my heart into another compartment on this issue. I am not going to be moved by appeals to think of the man's wife and to think of his children. I beg him to think of them now. Then I shall not have to think of them later. I hope that that will convince the noble Lord that I am being almost as ruthless in the matter as he would be himself.

I am bound to confess that it is not always easy to get proof in these cases. They are extraordinarily difficult. One of my officers a short time ago stopped a motor car at four o'clock in the morning on a country road because he thought he would like to see what was in it. Within a very short time a private motor car which happened to be passing—as private cars do at four o'clock in the morning on a country road—stopped for the driver to have a conversation with the person who was driving the first car in order to find out what was the matter. He had been suspicious. That was why he had been following the first car. We discovered by that means a whole range of Black Market transactions widespread throughout the country. I am glad to say the gentleman who stopped his car will not do so for another three years. Your Lordships might inquire whether I am as good as my word on this matter. We have withdrawn forty-one retail licences, but only one catering licence up to now. Twenty wholesalers have had their licences reviewed and in six cases they have been completely revoked. These figures are small. I am glad that they are small because I have tried to convince you that I am taking this question of the Black Market very seriously, and I have tried to convince you that all the forces of different Government Departments are seeking out these people. When I show your Lordships the comparatively small number of licences that have been revoked, I hope your Lordships will take that as evidence that that, ugly as it is, does indeed represent a very small blot on the honour of the food trades with which I am concerned. I hope that the noble Lord who has done the service of raising this issue will be convinced that my administration is as vigorous as he would wish it.


My Lords, I am sure we are most indebted to the noble Lord for the very full statement he has given with regard to the Black Market. I never had any doubt that the noble Lord was doing his best to eradicate this evil. My fear was, knowing him as I do, that he would be perhaps a little tenderhearted. He has converted me now and I am satisfied that he is taking such steps as will eventually eradicate this evil from our midst. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.