HL Deb 11 June 1947 vol 148 cc582-95

7.20 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading 'read.


My Lords, after the important, interesting and valuable debate which has just ended, I feel like apologizing to the House for having to ask it to spend some little time in consideration of a matter which is at the best of times a very dry matter. But we are very anxious to complete the Second Reading of this Bill, and I hope your Lordships will treat it in the same way as the Bill was treated in another place—that is, as a non-controversial measure, with the result that I shall take up but very little time in attempting to explain its provisions. The title of the Bill in itself— "The Statistics of Trade Bill"—gives the purposes of the Bill, for it is intended to bring up to date the collection of statistics and readily to place this information at the disposal of all those who require it, whether they be the Government Departments or those who are engaged in the various branches of industry in this country.

The need for such information has long been felt and, as was explained by the President of the Board of Trade on the Second Reading of the Bill in another place, the Bill is the outcome of certain action initiated by previous Governments, particularly the war-time Coalition Government, who had to improvise machinery for the collection of much statistical information from industry and commerce, and, indeed, from all kinds of organizations and people. I can readily commend this Bill to your Lordships as a non-controversial measure, for it will be remembered that some time was spent in considering its details in another place, and no Division was taken on the Third Reading of the Bill.

In the White Paper on Full Employment policy which was published in 1944, there was ample evidence as to the need for this measure. The Working Parties, which have recently reported upon their work, have indicated that industry is greatly in need of statistics such as the Bill will provide. It will be of interest to your Lordships to know that other countries—the United States, for example—collected before the war much more in the way of statistical information than we did. This also applies on the distributive side of trade to Canada, Sweden, and Eire. The supply and the use of such statistics is regarded by the business men of those countries as being part of their business. They readily give the particulars asked for on their own industry, for they realize the great value which they obtain from the statistics given by other industrialists.

The Bill is devised to make provision for two major statistical returns, one of production and the other of distribution. It is true that we already had censuses of production in this country, the first one relating to the year so long ago as 1907. But one of the purposes of this Bill is to provide that censuses shall be taken annually, as it is clear that five years is far too long a period to have to wait between one census and another. The decision to enlarge the scope of the census represents the carrying into effect of the Report of a Committee of industrialists and independent experts who were appointed by the then President of the Board of Trade, Mr. Oliver Lyttelton. This Committee, as your Lordships know, met under the Chairmanship of Sir George Nelson. They went into this matter very thoroughly and produced a unanimous Report as to the kind of information which is required in addition to that which was provided for in the earlier Act. We never have had a full census of distribution in this country, and, as was reported by the Hopkins Committee, to which I shall briefly refer later, in present-day conditions a census of distribution is needed to close the widest gap in the general statistics of industry. Mr. Oliver Lyttelton set up a second Committee to consider as to whether it was advisable to hold such a census, and again there was a unanimous Report that such a census was desirable.

May I now briefly summarize the present position in regard to these two types of census? So far as the census of production is concerned, the Board of Trade have been taking a partial census of production in respect of 1946. This census has covered eleven industries, and has two main objects; first, to obtain fuller information about these industries, which include some of the main industries of the country, and, secondly, to try out the new questions which were designed to secure the information recommended in the Census of Production Committee's Report. The first full census of production—provided this Bill is passed, as I hope it will be—will relate to production in the year 1948. I ought to say that the Government intend sending out copies of the forms upon which the census will be based early in 1948. As regards the second census—that of distribution—it was originally intended to take a "pilot" census, as recommended by the Hopkins Committee, in the early part of this year, but that has been postponed for one year. I do not think I ought to take up your Lordships' time in going through the Bill clause by clause, because I am sure that your Lordships will be well acquainted with them. I shall leave any question which it may be desired to put, to be answered by my noble friend, Lord Chorley, who is going to wind up the debate. In conclusion, I might perhaps describe this Bill as a useful and necessary piece of machinery for enabling essential information to be collected. I fully realize how much industrialists dislike the filling in of the many forms which are now being collected under Defence Regulations, or voluntarily, and it is pleasing to be able to say that the demands made under the Bill do not represent a new burden on industry in that respect. Indeed, I am advised that, compared with the recent past, the system contemplated represents a considerable lightening of the burden. In many cases information will be asked for in less detail, in some cases less frequently, and, where appropriate, the method of sampling will be adopted in order to reduce the work both on industry and on the Government. We do not suggest that the collection of statistics will solve our economic problems: it will not. But the information obtained will form a very valuable basis on which our future economic action can be assisted, and by which we may avoid many of the mistakes of the past which caused so much misery to so many of our people. It is, therefore, with confidence that I ask your Lordships to give this Bill a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.(Viscount Hall.)

7.28 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships are grateful to the noble Viscount for having moved the Second Reading of this Bill. At once I can allay any Government misgivings, because, in general, we support the principles of this Bill. The purpose of it is twofold: first, to assist industry, and, second, to give the Government information which any Government to-day requires as regards the industrial position in the country. It is generally accepted by the best directorates of private enterprise that statistics are necessary in order that industry should know where it is going, and the same principle must apply to the nation. That is, therefore, the reason why we give general support to the Bill.

In the opinion of noble Lords on this side of the House, however, we must have the right sort of statistics, the right quantity of information and the assurance that it goes to the right. people. We require for industry die "managing director" type of statistics—the sort of information the managing director of any efficient enterprise would require—and we do not want cluttering-up and duplicated statistics. The war-time enthusiasm of Government Departments for demands by inexperts for expert knowledge which, when obtained, they did not always understand or know hat to do with, is too fresh in the memory of many of us. We are therefore grateful for Clause 8 which says that there will be consultation with the appropriate trade bodies. I am sorry that the Government in another place felt unable to accept an Amendment to the Bill to make that consultation obligatory, and I ask for an assurance from the noble Lord who is to reply that all appropriate trade bodies will be consulted before the various forms and inquiries are sent out—consulted not only as to the forms themselves but as to their frequency.

Under this Bill there are 21 Government Departments that can demand information and pass it on to approximately 100 Government Departments; therefore I do not think it unreasonable to ask for the further assurance that there will be inter-departmental consultation before the various items of information are sought, so as to make sure that information sought by the Board of Trade, for example, may not have been recently provided to another Government Department. I hope at a later stage the Government will look sympathetically on an Amendment to Clause 4, subsection (1), to make it a reasonable defence for any person prosecuted for not giving information that he had, in a reasonable period of time before, given this information to another Government Department. In the debate in another place the Government replied sympathetically to a suggestion that we should try to get these statistics on a basis beyond our national boundaries. We would like to get a form of Empire census, and I would go further and suggest that we could later on try to get a U.N.O. form of statistics. Perhaps in due course the commercial side of U.N.O. might be able to examine this suggestion so that standards of statistics may be not only national but imperial and international.

Clause 10, which is most important, was inserted in another place and aroused a considerable amount of protest. Indeed, it was passed only on an assurance from the President of the Board of Trade that it would be reviewed in your Lordships' House. It gives wide and absolute powers to require information from air travellers. It was debated for hours in another place and it is no exaggeration to say that it was riddled with shot from both sides. I think your Lordships' House must examine it carefully. The Government, quite rightly, envisage an expansion of air travel. They want information about air migrants—the age, sex and occupation of air passengers. Under the 1906 Shipping Act, Section 76, the Board of Trade required the master of a ship to give this information, and laid down penalties, I think of £20, if he did not give it. This information cannot be demanded of the captain of an aircraft, and therefore it must be sought from the passengers themselves.

But what do the Government do? They put down a clause of almost limitless power, which allows the Board of Trade to ask for much more than age, sex and occupation, and imposes far greater penalties for failure than are contained in the 1906 Act. We already get most of that information from passengers; we have exchange control, customs, passports and the immigration forms of the Home Office and I should have thought it easy for the Board of Trade to extract this information from the forms already filled up. If such information is required directly for the Board of Trade, would the noble Lord look at the matter from three angles: to restrict the demand to what is needed, to level out the penalties so that they are more in accord with the maritime penalties, and to see if information already in the hands of the Government Departments is not enough; and then introduce the clause only if the answer is that they have not enough.

One more Amendment to which the Government is pledged provides that when information is demanded by a body under one of the numerous delegations of powers given to the Board of Trade, that body must state that the demand is made specifically under powers granted under this Bill. In another place the Government said that they would look into that matter. We would be very willing to put down Amendments on this point, but if the noble Lord could consider these questions perhaps the Committee stage could be eased. This Bill is of very great importance. It is one on which another place spent a great deal of time, and it affects British industry in many directions. I therefore commend it to the close attention of your Lordships.

7.27 p.m.


My Lords, I would like to follow the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, in supporting this Bill and echoing his concluding words that this is a matter of greatest importance because, as the noble Viscount who introduced the Bill says, it seeks to fill some of the gaps in our knowledge of our national economy. The noble Viscount made the alarming admission, of which those of us who have been connected with trade and industry have been perfectly aware, and which is one of the biggest indictments we can possibly have of our economic structure, that never in the history of this country has there been a census of distribution. I have said in your Lordships' House before—and I apologise for repeating it—that it is useless to organize our productive industry up to a high state of efficiency and see the resulting gains lost in a wasteful distributive system. May I draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that as long ago as 1922 a Committee presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Linlithgow, reported that "distribution costs are a far heavier burden than society will permanently consent to bear." The Report went on to say that it should "be possible to concentrate in the hands of one intermediary the successive functions now performed by several."

The noble Lord, Lord Woolton, when he had upon his shoulders the very great responsibility of the Ministry of Food, said that in spite of almost unbridled competition the distributive trades were one of the most expensive and luxurious factors in our national life. At last we are going to find out something about the economy of distribution. My only regret is that this census of distribution is not coming into operation until 1950, because if noble Lords will look at the Economic Survey for 1947 that has been printed and published by His Majesty's Government they cannot fail to be aghast at the fact that we are still budgeting for approximately 2,500,000 workers in the distributive trades. We cannot go on like that, and I am afraid that unless we know something more about the dissection of manpower by a careful compilation of the statistics we shall go on wasting our manpower resources. The right honourable gentleman who is now the Foreign Secretary said, when he was Minister of Labour during the war, that people went into the distributive trades as a resting house between them and the workhouse, only to find that it brought the workhouse nearer. Before the war it was estimated, on the most authoritative figures then available, that the mortality in the retail trade amounted every year to 20 per cent., and in the last analysis the cost of that mortality rested upon the shoulders of the productive workers. Noble Lords will understand why, as one who has made a very close study of the economics of distribution for the last twenty-five years, I welcome this Bill. And I would echo what the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, has said—that it fills a gap in our national economic knowledge, and is a Bill of great importance. I sincerely congratulate His Majesty's Government on bringing it before your Lordships' House.

7.40 P.m.


My Lords, the noble Viscount who moved the Bill hoped that we should have something like the statistics that are published by the Americans. I know a country which publishes still more beautiful statistics, and, moreover, illustrated statistics; but, unfortunately, nobody believes them and therefore I will not give the noble Viscount the name of that country. The world is divided into those who love figures and those who hate them. The figure lovers are further subdivided into those who believe in them, and those who use them with scepticism. Nothing is more dangerous than to ply with figures the figure lovers who are not sceptics, because the figures go completely to their heads. I remember many years ago discussing with a very wise old gentleman (one of the great scholar athletes of Cambridge in the seventies) the statistics of the commodity markets. I belittled these very full statistics, but he said: "Oh dear me, no. I study them most carefully, but I generally do the opposite of what the figures suggest to me." He had learned the secret of figures, and it is quite safe to give figures to people like that, because they know what to do with them when they have them. To-day, a great many of the activities of our nation are in the hands of Ministers and Government Departments, and that is the one thing which frightens me about this Bill. It is not the statistics I fear, but the way they will have to be used. I have shown what is often the proper way to deal with statistics, but, of course, no civil servant can possibly adopt such an attitude, even if he wanted to; and, not all Ministers are willing to do so either. The figures can be used only in their obvious interpretation, and there would be no chance for my wise old gentleman in these matters. He would have had to be a slave to the figures—as indeed every civil servant must be.

Anyone who has ever been in the Civil Service must suspect the real reason for this Bill. The Ministers and civil servants are called upon to do all sorts of things which nature never intended them to do. They have not had the practical experience, and, in default, the only thing they can do is to rely upon the figures. For that reason, this Bill seems to be necessary, but I feel that this inevitable over-attention to figures is leading to some of our industrial difficulties. One cannot just treat the raw materials of industry as so many tons of this and so many tons of that; and the same applies to men. What we want to-day is quality, quality, and quality again—quality of men and quality of materials; and statistics do not measure quality. This Bill, if anything, will make the Government more quantity-minded than they are already, and for that reason I am rather sorry it has ever been introduced.

7.45 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Viscount, in moving this Bill, emphasized that there were two main purposes, one of which was production and the other distribution. I am bound to intervene, because I regret that he omitted to lay emphasis on the value of stocks. The absence of information on that matter is something which has contributed more than anything else to the difficulties of industries. It is for that reason that I intervene. The Bill gives powers, under the Schedule, to take all information that the Government may want, and in supporting the Bill I would emphasize my hope that, in advance of the arrangements in regard to the census, some steps may be taken actually to assist those industries which want it to bring into operation the mechanism to give them the value of stocks which will guide industry as to its measurement of the future of industry. The Federation of British Industries (as representing organized industry), as the noble Viscount will be aware, took care to inform the Government, in the course of the Bill's passage in another place, of their views on the measures themselves; and adequate satisfaction was given.

The noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, with eloquence and point, referred to the safeguards required. It remains for me merely to add one other word, because for many years I have persistently advocated, by questions and recommendations in your Lordships' House, that steps should be taken in this matter. I want to say how much I welcome this Bill, and to go further and to say that I hope steps will at once be taken to put it into force. I would close with this remark, as a past President of the Federation of British Industries. Nearly twenty years ago, in my enthusiasm (which was then rather in advance of the times), I urged the then President of the Board of Trade in the first Labour administration—Mr. Willie Graham—that he should take steps such as the Government are now recommending to the House. He resisted this as it was much too progressive, and I was able to say, as a Conservative, that this was because the Labour Government were much too conservative. I have great pleasure in endorsing the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, in supporting this Bill.

7.48 p.m.


My Lords, the late hour has prevented us from giving as full a treatment to this very important Bill as we would have liked to have done. If for no other reason, this Bill is valuable because it will give my noble friend Lord Cherwell more ammunition for those pungent speeches with which he delights your Lordships from time to time.


I am glad the noble Lord admits the speeches are valuable.


I am sorry the noble Lord has not taken part in the discussion, but the discussion has been very gratifying to those of us on this side of your Lordships' House, in that your Lordships have given a warm welcome to this Bill. There was, perhaps, just one slight note of discord, but my musical friends assure me that a beautiful piece of music requires a certain amount of discord, otherwise it is not really good music. If I may deal with the few points which have been raised during the discussion, the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, while welcoming the Bill, pointed out that it was important that the Board of Trade—the Department responsible for the collection of these statistics—should keep closely in touch with the representatives of industry and commerce in regard to these matters; he asked for an assurance that that would be done. I am glad to assure the noble Lord—as, indeed, members of another place have already been assured—that the very closest liaison will be maintained with the world of industry and commerce. Indeed, the two Committees who reported on these matters number among them names of the very highest rank in business, as I am sure your Lordships will agree.

We also appreciate the great importance of not having too many of these inquiries, and there will certainly be—as there have been in the past—consultations between the different Departments of State interested in these matters of statistics. My noble friend the First Lord of the Admiraty, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, made the point, which is of great importance, that when this machinery is effectively in action it will mean a considerable reduction in the number of statistics which have been required in the last years; I am sure everybody will agree that that will be a valuable improvement. The noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, mentioned that he was proposing to move an Amendment making it a defence to prosecution that a business undertaking had already made a return substantially dealing with the same matter to some other Government Department. With regard to that, of course, we shall have an opportunity of having a full discussion on the Committee stage.

I would like to mention to the noble Lord now, however, that it is not always the case that a return made to one Gov- ernment Department will be satisfactory for the requirements of another. Broadly speaking, no doubt that is usually so, but it is not always so, and it may not be possible. I do not want to pre-judge the matter now; I am just indicating to the noble Lord the difficulties which arise. As he said, there was a considerable discussion in another place on the question of the collection of statistics in connexion with air transport. That is an important matter, and it is quite essential that we should have statistics in regard to this important growing type of transport. My right honourable and learned friend has already given an undertaking that we will put down, as we fully intend to do, an Amendment making more precise the sort of information which will be required. It is in Clause 10 of the Bill as it at present stands, but I agree that it is perhaps rather vague.

With regard to the question of penalties, which was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, I would point out that since the Merchant Shipping Act of 1906 was passed, the value of money has changed a good deal, and I do not think on present valuations there is a great deal of difference between the £50 which is in the Bill and the £20, or whatever it is, in the Merchant Shipping Act. However, we will be quite prepared to discuss the question of the amount of the penalties. The noble Lord also raised a point about the delegated authorities, and that the Departments issuing instructions for statistical returns should make it clear on the forms which they issue that they are issuing these forms under the authority delegated to them by the President of the Board of Trade. I do not see that there need be any particular difficulty about that, and I think with that observation I have covered all the points.


An Amendment was promised on that.


Yes. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, devoted his remarks to the important question of our wasteful distribution system, and I think he made it clear that if we had had these statistics in the past a great deal of the difficulties in connexion with the rationing system, and the arrangements which had to be made during the war years in connexion with retail trade, would have been overcome. The noble Lord, Lord Hawke, was a little cynical about civil servants. I think his experience as a temporary civil servant must have been less satisfactory than mine, because I came out of the Civil Service with the very highest respect for the ability of the civil servant.


I would like to challenge any imputation that the noble Lord makes that I think anything bad of civil servants. I think the Civil Service is a highly honourable service, and most able, but they have certain rules that bind them to do things.


The noble Lord did suggest that they would not be capable of using these statistics efficiently. I would like to say on that that they had to get together statistics with very great rapidity in the early months of the war, and the very successful rationing system, and the arrangements made in connexion with retail trade during the war years, had to be largely founded on those statistics. It was worked out, no doubt, under the able leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, but it was worked out by civil servants, using such statistics as could be collected in this way. I quite agree that it requires a good deal of training and skill to use statistics efficiently, and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Cherwell, would agree with me in that[...] They may be like alcohol, as the noble Lord suggested, in that they go to the head, but I do not think for a moment that anybody would suggest—at least, I hope not—that we should give up the use of alcohol because in the hands of intemperate people it goes to their heads. The noble Lord, Lord Barnby, raised an important point about the value of statistics relating to stocks. Actually, of course, statistics are already collected in relation to stocks. The noble Lord is quite familiar with the Monthly Digest of Statistics in which many stock positions are dealt with. If the noble Lord will look at the Schedule to the Bill, he will see that stocks are one of the matters specifically dealt with. The Board of Trade are well aware of the great importance of the stock position, and certainly their intentions are to deal with this particular matter.

I would have liked to address your Lordships in general terms, but as it is late I would just like to cover one or two points of a general character. One is that really adequate statistics are quite essential to any system of central planning of industry, and as it is quite clear that over the next years we are going to have a great deal of planning, obviously we have to have sufficient statistics. Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is quite right when he points out the great importance of more adequate statistics relating to distribution. Distribution has been the great weakness in economics. In the economics of production and monetary theory tremendous contributions have been made by economists in the last generation, but the great gap is the economics of distribution. Nobody really knows the economics of distribution, because there is no scientific material on which the matter can be worked out and discussed. Therefore, if your Lordships pass this Bill—as it is now clear, I am glad to say, that you will—we shall be in a position to make great progress along these two essential lines. With these words I would ask your Lordships to give this Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.