§ 3.33 p.m.
§ Report received.
§ Clause 2 [Regulation of price of food etc.]:
Lord ELTON moved Amendment No. 1:
Page 3, line 9, after ("above") insert ("otherwise than in retail shops with a selling space of less than 250 sq. ft.").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise in place of my noble friend Lady Young to commend the two Amendments which stand on the Marshalled List in our name today. Your Lordships are fairly familiar with the ground on which we are stamping at the moment. I think it is first necessary to put it into context to remind your Lordships that we are dealing here specifically with the effects of the Bill on the very small shopkeeper. It is necessary to emphasise the social importance of the small shopkeeper to your Lordships as a focus of community spirit in rural and concentrated small urban areas, and his or her contribution to the sense of belonging to a community in an age when so much is flying apart; with a migratory population, so many suburbs are merely dormitories. It is a place for the exchange of news and, most important, a "bush telegraph" for the sick and isolated where news of their distress passes to their friends. Many such communities are served by only one of these shops or occasionally two, and they are isolated by deficiencies in rural transport from larger centres of supply.
§ Your Lordships will, perhaps, have noticed that, when I asked the noble Lord 1043 earlier this afternoon whether there was any consumer protection organisation for people dependent on rural transport, the answer was, "No". It must be common knowledge to many of your Lordships how weak the infrastructure of rural communications is, and how dependent upon local supply are the elderly and the impoverished who do not aspire to own a motor car. These numbers are growing since the Budget with the increase of the road fund licence. The small shop-keeper is on a very narrow margin, so narrow that there is a real danger of large numbers of failures, if additional burdens are placed upon him. We are not talking of chain stores, with many assistants, but of the place which smells of peppermints, cheese and tarred string, and in which a bunch of school children can be seen arguing over sherbert fountains, rather than in the jostle of the supermarket.
§ We have chosen this measure of 250 sq. ft., which many of your Lordships may feel very small indeed, because that is the measure of the concession which the noble Lord himself announced to us in the debate on the 1974 Act, and this concession was given to us not in legislation, but under a Statutory Instrument, and for that we were duly grateful and, indeed, we are seeking to do little else than to ask that this be continued in the form of Statute.
§ The disadvantages under which these shops labour should not be underestimated. In July of last year, I gave the following instance. I pointed out that a 1 lb. tin of Cadbury's Cocoa at the 10 case rate—which is what you might expect a small shopkeeper to lay in as stock—was then available at 41¾ per tin. At the 400 case rate a 1 lb. tin was 37½p. There would be chaos in a small shop which stocked only one line in such a quantity of 400 cases of 24 or 48 tins and small shops could not aspire to this for reasons of space let alone finance. But the difference would be 3¾p for every tin sold on this commodity alone.
§ Since then those figures have changed. The 10 case rate is now 46.65p, and the 400 case rate is 42.33p. This is an example, if you wish, of inflation. The gap of disadvantage to the small trader has widened to 4.32p if my mathematics are correct. The difference has increased 1044 by over ½P a tin in less than a year. The handicaps of the small trader are increasing. Bread is sold on a fixed price with discounts limited by a Statutory Instrument, retrospectively I believe—an odd consideration—from 3rd September of last year, and the multiples, whose advantages are thus consolidated by Ministerial edict, get 22½ per cent. discount, whereas the small shops only get 12½ per cent. If they matched the prices of the multiples, they would be selling at cost.
§ I could elaborate, my Lords, but I shall merely mention that Wall's sausages are 10 per cent. more expensive to the small shop in the village than to the multiple. The purpose of these Amendments is to relieve the small shopkeeper, not of the obligation of observing the national maximum prices, which we accept as being already law. Although the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, argued eloquently at the Committee stage on the advantages of the flexibility of margin control, these advantages are greatly exaggerated. We think that the burden on the small shop-keeper sitting down with a stub of pencil on a Saturday night, when he ought to be taking a rest, is not commensurate with the advantages. We think the result will be closures of some shops. We regard the small shopkeepers as being among the hard-pressed, under-privileged and overworked people whom the Government have pronounced themselves anxious to help. We believe that the customers are, in the main, in the same category. To pass the Bill without this Amendment will be acting contrary not only with the compassionate interest of this House, but with the declared intention of Her Majesty's Government. I do not expect the noble Lord to accept the whole of that, but that is our position. We believe that small businesses deserve protection. We do not think the age of the mass media, mass shop, mass retailer, should go unchecked; we must protect the individual. I beg to move.