Orders of the Day — Profiteering Bill. – in the House of Commons on 13th August 1919.
Subject to the provisions of this Act, the Board of Trade shall have power in respect of any article to which this Act applies—
(5) This Act applies 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 majority of the population, but this Act does not apply to any articles which are from time to time declared to be controlled articles.
I beg to move, to leave out the words "the Board of Trade shall have power," and to insert instead thereof the words "it shall be the duty of tribunals established under this Act."
I should like, if I may, to explain the object I have in view in moving this Amendment. As I said on the Second Heading, I want to assist in securing the objects which the right hon. Gentleman has in view, but I submitted then, and I submit now, that this Bill will be ineffective for that purpose—that in reality it is a sham, and that I want to take some part, as for as is possible, in helping to make it a reality. I am not wedded in any way to the terms of the Amendment, and if another Amendment will achieve better the end in view I will certainly withdraw my Amendment. What I submit is that if this Bill is to be effective the tribunal or committee, or whatever body it is which is called upon to make these investigations in the first instance, must be a committee which is independent on the one hand, and must conduct its investigations in public on the other hand, and that only by such means can we possibly secure satisfaction to the country. If this committee is not an impartial committee, if it is not conducted on lines that the public understand, it can never give that satisfaction to the country which I want to assist the right hon. Gentleman in securing. That is why I have moved this Amendment. I recognise the difficulty of carrying out what is suggested, but the point before us is to secure the confidence of the country in any bodies or tribunals we set up, and I submit that any tribunal of that kind should be independent of, and superior to, not only all interests, great or small, or combinations of interests, but should be such as to bring out all the facts, no matter whom they affect, so that the public may know that the committee is acting impartially. The terms of the Preamble are very significant. They relate to any articles the prices of which are enhanced by charges yielding an unreasonable profit.
I will ask my right hon. Friend opposite whether, if n complaint is subsequently made, it will come within the terms of the Act? I base that upon a statement contained in an article recently published by Lord Emmott. He is a well-known and highly respected man, who took part in a very important Committee set up by the Board of Trade—I believe by the right hon. Gentleman himself. The proceedings of that Committee were private. We know nothing of them except by the casual reports we have gleaned in various ways. We do not know what the effect produced has been; we have them disclosed to a slight extent by this state-
ment, and I am going to venture, by leave of the Committee, to quote one short passage. Lord Emmott says:
I was a member of that Committee. One day this Committee decided that all restrictions on imports of paper and paper material should be removed on the ground that the people who benefited by cheaper paper were more numerous and important than the few thousand who were represented in the manufacture of paper. The moment steps were taken to give effect to this decision the manufacturers were up in arms, and the Board of Trade quailed, and with Sir Auckland Geddes acquiesced. That is why—
and this is the point of my question—
all things made of paper are unnecessarily dear to-day.
The condition of things is such that we want to inquire into all the circumstances attending the cost of the articles of ordinary consumption. Here is one rather important item where, by reason of the course adopted, prices are unnecessarily high to-day. In the investigations that are going to be made will we have it disclosed to the public what the effect of those restrictions have been, and how much the cost of paper—using that as an illustration—has been enhanced by reason of the restrictions; and will the inquiry be such that everything will be taken into consideration so that the people may regard it as impartial, and so that confidence can be placed in its findings? I do not desire to labour the point which I have indicated. I have a sincere desire to make this Bill effective, if it is possible, and I do not think it will be effective unless we have impartial tribunals, and it is in that spirit that I beg to move.
I should like first to acknowledge my full appreciation of what the hon. Gentleman has said, that it is his desire to make this Bill as effective and as useful as it is possible to make it. I have been much interested by this Amendment, and by nine other Amendments which follow in the name of the hon. Gentleman, and which seem to form a continuous whole. This Amendment is designed to remove any responsibility from the Board of Trade. If one might speak purely from a personal point of view, I would not be slow to welcome it, but I do not know that it is quite possible, from an administrative point of view. Let us see what follows. There are three subsequent Amendments which reduce the function of the Board of Trade to the appointment of tribunals, and there are further Amendments the effect of which would be—and I hope the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I misunderstood him—that the Government, as such, should wash its hands of all interest in the tribunals it is proposed to establish, and that there should be no Minister responsible to Parliament in any way for the action of those tribunals. That, so far as I can understand, is the meaning of the series of Amendments. There would be no Minister of the Crown responsible, and there- would not be, in the ordinary sense, any direct control by Parliament. There are some further Amendments to Clause 6standing in the name of the same hon. Gentleman which have the effect, as I understand them, of allowing the expenses of establishing tribunals to be paid out of moneys provided by Parliament and the expenses of local tribunals. That would lead to this position—that the expenses neither of the central tribunal nor of the appeal tribunal could be paid out of those funds. The effect of all the Amendments would be that there would be no Minister responsible for the administration of this Act, and that the tribunals would not owe allegiance, after the moment of birth, to any Government Department, and they would be entirely independent and under no direct control, and that the central and other tribunals should receive financial assistance from public funds. I do not think myself such a proposition would be administratively possible or could be accepted by the House. Therefore, I feel that I may have misunderstood the effect of the sequence of the ten Amendments. There is no doubt whatever that, if they wore adopted as they stand, there would be no Minister responsible except for the appointment of the tribunals.
With regard to the further point raised by the hon. Gentleman, and which I understood to be that the tribunals should be free to publish all information obtained, that is obviously a very difficult point which we must consider more fully a little later. I am quite clear in my own mind that there must be some investigation, which can only be made effective if there is no publicity, unless the result of the investigation shows such a state of affairs to exist as to make prosecution necessary. It is quite clear such investigations as we require into the whole process of manufacture and production of goods cannot take the form really of tribunal investigation if such investigations are to satisfactorily get at the facts. Much more, what is wanted in those cases is a purely and absolutely confidential investigation, so that the real position may be explored, and become known in a confidential manner to the authority, whatever it may be. With regard to the question of publicity, where there is a prosecution, that, of course, would be absolute, and where a complaint was made and a decision arrived at there would be publicity, and I would be prepared to see how I could meet my hon. Friend in giving greater publicity on such points. That lies beyond the scope of the present Amendment, so far as I have been able to understand it.
On a point of Order. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has just said that the point which he was reaching would be outside the scope of this Amendment. Would it not be in order, and I suggest for the convenience of the Committee, if the right hon. Gentleman stated now to the Committee what his plans were for working these bodies. It would be a great convenience to the Committee to know at the outset what his intentions were, and then the subsequent Amendments could be disposed of either by way of agreement or disagreement.
A suggestion of that kind might lead to a complete Second Reading Debate on the Bill. This Amendment, in terms, merely places the duty on local tribunals instead of on the Board of Trade. I think the right hon. Gentleman might assist the Committee by referring generally to the functions of those tribunals.
In view of what you, Sir, have said, I shall be very pleased to give a short and brief statement of what I conceive to be the administration of this Bill, if it becomes law, without attempting to go into the whole question completely, because that would take too long. My conception of the machinery which would be set up under this Bill is this. The Board of Trade should appoint a large central tribunal, which I described when I appeared before the Select Committee in words which have been repeated almost exactly in the new Clause (Operations of Trusts), which stands in the name of one of the Whips of the Labour party—
There shall be established a tribunal consisting of a person of legal qualifications as permanent chairman, and not less than two or more than seven other members selected by him from time to time from a panel appointed for
the purpose by the President of the Board of Trade, after considering nominations made by representative trade organisations, including the co-operative movement and trade unions.
That central panel should contain on it persons of expert knowledge in manufacturing processes and in the wholesale and distributing branches of business. That tribunal should have entrusted to it the confidential central investigation with regard to the larger questions, and those investigations should not be carried out in the way that a tribunal sitting to judge a case carries out its work. That investigation should be carried out in co-operation with people whose business was being investigated. We are assured by many people that we would get great help in carrying out such investigations so long as they were confidential. Those investigations would be extremely valuable, and would form a central body of information which would be, through the Board of Trade, at the disposal of the State, if not in detail, in general. In addition, and quite separate from that, we should have local bodies, a committee or tribunal to which individuals who feel themselves aggrieved by prices charged, may appeal, and have the case investigated, and that both these local bodies and the appeal bodies, and the central body, should, if they find any glaring, obvious case of persistent and pernicious profiteering, have the power of prosecuting. That is the conception.
Yes, they would have the power of prosecuting, but not, of course, of judging—that is to say, they would have the power of taking a case to a Court of Summary Jurisdiction in order that it might be dealt with there. If there was an appeal and the Appeal Tribunal believed that the case was one of pernicious profiteering, then it would become the prosecuting authority.
Would the prosecution be on their own initiative, without reference to the Board of Trade, and who would pay for the prosecution?
The prosecution would be under the authority of the Board of Trade. It would be, in fact and in form, on the responsibility of the President of the Board of Trade that the prosecution would be carried out.
There would be the authorisation of the Board of Trade behind them?
Yes, that is the position in. the Bill as it stands, but in the case of the small local cases the Board of Trade itself, as such, of course, would be relying upon the investigations made locally.
Oh, no! My hon. Friend has not followed what I have said. I must try and be clearer. The Board of Trade, under the Bill as drafted, has the power of delegating its authority; it may delegate all its authority or. as the Bill stands, it may delegate a part of its authority.
Then it is quite obvious what is the answer to my hon. Friend—it has delegated all, and the person to whom it is delegated may prosecute.
I am sorry, but I do not think it is quite clear now. Suppose the local tribunal, on the evidence, wish to prosecute a particular person, can they do that on their own initiative without reference to the Board of Trade, or must they first refer it to the Board of Trade?
If the Board of Trade have delegated their powers, certainly they can prosecute. I hope that is clear. If the Board of Trade have not delegated their powers, they cannot prosecute, and I hope that also is clear. Now the object of the Board of Trade will be to give discretion to these authorities within reasonable limits. It would become perfectly impossible if small cases from all over the country were to be referred to the Board of Trade every time. The administration of such a thing would lead to the creation of what we all want to avoid, namely, a great central bureaucratic staff. My right hon. Friend opposite who spoke last night feared the creation of a great staff, and I would, too, if everything had to be referred back to the Board of Trade, and, there- fore, it is intended, it is contemplated, and as I picture the working of the Bill we should delegate, within limits, the Board's powers or prosecuting. I hope that that is plain. I think it would be obvious to the Committee that there must be some central authority which will act as the shepherd of the flock of sheep—the tribunals which this Bill, if it becomes law, will establish—and it is because of that and because the Amendments standing in the names of my hon. Friends opposite remove and obliterate that, and leave these tribunals independent and without a shepherd, that I think the Committee would not be well advised in accepting them.
We might, I think, have a very useful discussion if it was limited to this simple question of the tribunals, which my right hon. Friend has sketched out with clearness. Would it be in order to discuss that on the Amendment now before the Committee?
No. It is raised in several Amendments later on, and this Amendment of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. Thorne)proposes that instead of the Board of Trade all the various local tribunals set up under this Act should carry on the investigations detailed in Clause 1. That is the point before us.
I meant by subsequent Amendments that there should be a central tribunal with subordinate tribunals, but I want them to be independent. I think the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman is an improvement on the Bill itself, because in this Clause we have no indication at all of the appointment of this great central Committee, but, while I do not think his explanation is quite satisfactory, I will ask leave to withdraw my Amendment, as he cannot give me any assistance on the lines I propose.
I beg to move, to leave out the words "Board of Trade" ["Board of Trade shall have power"], and to insert instead thereof the words "Ministry of Food."
The object of the Amendment is to- substitute the Ministry of Food for the Board of Trade,. and I move it on three grounds, namely, speed, efficiency, and economy. For four years the Ministry of Food have been fixing prices and studying trade, and they have a Costings Department in full working order and an experienced staff which by this time must thoroughly know the intricacies and difficulties of trade. The Board of Trade will have to set up an entirely new Department, entailing a new staff, and there must of necessity, if we have both the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Food doing costings work and the work of fixing prices, be overlapping and duplicating. It was my privilege last year to serve on the Staff Investigation Committee of the Ministry of Munitions, and there one found, despite everything which had been done—and may I say that the findings of that Committee so far as they went were that the Ministry of Munitions was exceedingly well organized—that the costings there were duplicated in many cases, and that there were departments in the same building where a large number of clerks were doing exactly the same kind of work. If you have two Departments, the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Food, both responsible for the same sort of thing, there will be duplication of costings and a large increase of unnecessary staffs. My first point, as I said, is that of speed. The time to check the profiteer is now. There has been far too much time wasted already in getting on his track, and if the Board of Trade have got to set up a Department, to get together a staff, and then begin to consider this matter, it will be months before anything can be done.
I hope I shall not be lacking in modesty when I say that five months ago from these benches I pointed out that, whereas fortunes had been made during the War by profiteers, they were as nothing to the fortunes that were being made then and that would be made during the next few months if nothing was done. Five months have gone past since then, and more months will go past before the Board of Trade can get to work, and the profiteers will still go on, especially those in the wholesale manufacturing trade, rather than the retail trade, for after all it is the merchant and the manufacturer who profiteer in thousands and the retailer who profiteers in sixpences. It is the big man we want to get hold of, but it would be months before the Board of Trade could get on the track of the big man. Therefore, so far as speed is concerned, I suggest that the Ministry of Food can tackle this matter much more quickly. From the efficiency point of view they can also do it, because they are experienced. They have had enormous experience, and they would know what to look for and what to go after in the other articles of consumption in the same way as they have done in regard to the food which is already controlled. The third reason I submit to-the House is the point of view of economy. If the Board of Trade set up this new Department, it must be far more expensive to start a staff than if the Ministry of Food enlarged theirs to whatever extent might be necessary. The Food Controller greatly impressed the Select Committee with the grasp he had of the details of the Department, and the House heard the speech which his assistant, the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. McCurdy) made on the Second Reading of this Bill. An hon. Member behind me says it was the best speech on the Bill. At any rate, I think the House generally felt that he-made for such a Bill an exceedingly able defence. I venture to suggest that in the hands of those two men, who evidently understand their own Department, this work will be well and quickly taken up. The President of the Board of Trade has himself said he has no desire to take this over. He has probably far more work to do than he cares for; and, therefore, I beg to move that the Ministry of Food be substituted for the Board of Trade.
I cannot help thinking that my hon. Friend has moved this Amendment under some misapprehension. Matters which come specially within the province of the Ministry of Food are matters which will be carefully considered under this Bill. Undoubtedly, it is very often in relation to foods-tails and food materials that, in the language of the Preamble, prices are charged which yield "an unreasonable profit to the persona engaged in the production, handling or distribtion" of the articles. But, after all, the Ministry of Food is but a part of a very much larger whole. The Ministry, as such, takes no account, for example of clothing and boots.
My contention is that the Ministry of Food should, besides food, deal with other things, such as clothing and furniture.
The hon. Gentleman sees exactly the difficulty which is in the-way of his Amendment, because he is pro- posing to give to an existing Department, with an important but limited sphere of action, a very much larger sphere of action, in order to put it in some such position as that now occupied by the Board of Trade. It is not the Ministry of Food, but the Board of Trade which, at present, has to deal with matters such as boots, furniture, and all the things in common use by great numbers of the population, and, therefore, primâ facie, one would say it is for the more comprehensive Department, unless good reasons are shown to the contrary, to have charge of this particular matter. What are the, reasons that are suggested for substituting the Ministry of Food? It is said that there is in the Ministry of Food a Costings Department. True; and so there is in the Board of Trade, and I do not know if my hon. Friend is aware it has been decided by the Government that there should be one Costings Department bringing to bear at one point the experience of all Departments—one central Costings Department—and, that being so, so far as duplication of offices is concerned, it matters not whether it be the Board of Trade or the Ministry of Food. With regard to speed, there is no difficulty. Once this Bill becomes law, any transaction of the kind which the Bill aims at preventing comes within its scope, and, on complaint being made, investigation—and in a proper case prosecution—will follow. There is no reason to anticipate that there will be any lack of energy in proceeding, and I, entirely fail to see whether, upon the ground of economy, or upon the ground of speech, or upon any of the other grounds my hon. Friend mentioned, there is any sound reason for transferring responsibility under this Bill to the Ministry of Food as against the Board of Trade. On the other hand, the Board of Trade, as members of the Committee are well aware, has a far ampler scope, far more comprehensive subject-matter to deal with than has the Ministry of Food. Whatever information the Ministry of Food has which is of use for this purpose will be at the disposal of the Board of Trade. The Board of Trade, on the other hand, will bring to bear much larger, much more comprehensive, experience than the Ministry of Food can have at command. In these circumstances, this is an Amendment I fear cannot be accepted.
Lieut.-Colonel W. GUINNESS:
I hope the Committee will not accept this Amendment, because I think it will be most unfair to a very zealous and an efficient Minister. The Minister appeared before the Committee as late as last Tuesday, and he made it as clear as anyone could do that, in any measures which ought to be introduced against profiteering, these particular methods should not, in his opinion, be adopted. The proposals he made were entirely different from those in this Bill, and, presumably, as this was only two days before the Bill was introduced, and in view of the fact that the President of the Board of Trade says that these proposals had been under long consideration, the possibility of dealing with the matter in this way must have been in the mind of the Minister of Food when he came before the Committee and deliberately abstained from making proposals on these lines. His name is not on the Bill, and there is every evidence that he would not like to be made responsible for administering such a fantastic measure, which introduces into jurisprudence an entirely new method for the twentieth century—a method which really recalls the methods of the Star Chamber. I do not want to make odious comparisons between one Department and another, and I think, if this Bill is to pass, the best thing would be to let this ill-favoured infant be nursed by its own fond parent.
I sympathise very much with everything my hon. and gallant Friend (Lieut.-Colonel W. Guinness) said, except when he expressed the hope that the Committee would not accept the Amendment, and I will give an additional reason why it is most desirable at once to put this Bill under the Ministry of Food. The Ministry of Food has done very good work in protecting the consumer. The Board of Trade has done very good, and very necessary, work in protecting the producer. Its activities in the past few months have been principally directed, as the right hon. Gentleman himself said, in nursing the baby, in fostering the production of the very articles as to the high prices of which people are now complaining, and for that reason alone I hope the Amendment will be accepted, and that my hon. Friend will divide upon it if necessary. The Ministry of Food represents the consumer and this is a consumers' protection Bill, bad as it is. Therefore, I wish to support the Amendment.
I rise to support the Amendment. I was interested in the somewhat subtle attempt of the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Lieut.-Colonel Guinness) co create dissension in the Government he is supposed to support, by setting one Department against another. I quite agree in what he said about the Ministry of Food, which he seemed to think has more administrative wisdom than the Board of Trade. That would be a reason, though it is not one of my reasons, for transferring this work to the Ministry of Food. The Board of Trade have had a chance during the past few years, and they have done very little to protect the public from profiteering, whereas the Ministry of Food have done something in that way, and have acquired a great deal of experience in this sort of work. I think it would be a great pity if that experience should be lost in the new Department. The Food Controller's work has always been above board; he does not keep his policy in a box. That is another reason why, I think, the Food Controller should have this work, instead of the Board of Trade. Criticism has been directed chiefly to the central Department, but I think when we look at the local aspect, the machinery there is also already in being. You have food control committees in almost every locality in the United Kingdom, and you have food executive officers, and why should not the men and women on these committees, who have had great experience in this work, and the executive officers under the Food Ministry, be employed to do this work? It would simply be an extension of their work. Instead of that, this Government not only seems to have a mania for multiplying offices at the centre, but the local authorities are jostling one another at the street corners in running to attend various committees. Why should another tribunal be added to the existing tribunals? I believe in direct action to a certain extent, and here is direct action. We simply go direct to the Food Control Committees and ask them to do this work, and I believe they will do it far more efficiently than any brand new Committee the Board of Trade will set up. I was not at all convinced—I say so with respect—by the arguments of the Attorney-General. They were the conventional arguments. It ought to be obvious to anyone that we have already machinery in existence for dealing with this sort of problem.
Mr. KENNEDY JONES:
I hope the Government will not accept this Amend- ment. I am entirely against handing over the work of the Bill to a Minister who disagrees with it, but I am in agreement with the hon. Gentleman who moved this Amendment in that I do not think it ought to be done by the Board of Trade. I am not so very sure, from all that took place on Second Heading, and from the explanation we heard to-day from the President of the Board of Trade, that he would not be glad to get rid of the whole business. He has said he is already overworked and overburdened. I see he shakes his head, but the suggestion was that he had quite enough to do without the worries and troubles which this Bill will bring. The purpose of the Mover of the Amendment was to find some other machinery for carrying out the duties under this Bill. Other machinery does exist. It is neither the machinery of the Food Ministry nor that of the Board of Trade. The proper machinery for this Bill is the Ministry of Supply. You are going to fix prices and to declare profits, and, unless you can control supplies, you are going to risk the dangers of disaster in all branches of trade. You cannot control prices unless you control supply, and, therefore, I suggest that the proper authority to carry out the provisions of this Bill is the new Ministry which, I think, is in process of creation. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"]
I hope the Government will not yield to the Amendment, for different reasons from those which have been put forward by my hon. Friend (Mr. K. Jones) and my hon. and gallant Friend (Lieut.-Colonel Guinness). With, regard to the last suggestion, my hon. Friend, I trunk, is sanguine ii he makes the suggestion at all seriously, because the Bill, as he knows, only lasts six months, and it is a pious hope of anyone to believe that the Ministry of Supply will be born before that. I cannot support this Amendment, although I shall be found supporting many Amendments moved from the benches opposite in the course of the Bill. I am bound to say I do not think the Bill is a very good one, and I shall be surprised if it can be improved. The Amendment was moved on grounds of economy and efficiency. I do not believe there is very much in the ground of economy, because only a very few days ago we were assured by the Minister of Food that he reduced the staff so quickly that he found himself very much under-staffed after de-control. There is another ground which, I think, is important. It is quite true, as my hon. Friend (Mr. K. Jones) said, that the whole question will be bound up with the question of supplies. I suppose the Board of Trade, and my right hon. Friend, will be concerned very much with the question of supplies from the point of view of the imports and exports, trusts, trade policy, and all the rest that is bound up with it. On that ground alone I do suggest seriously to the Committee that we will be making a great mistake if at this point we divorce the administration which is only one part of the Ministry of Supply and which naturally falls under the hand of my right hon. Friend.
May I draw attention to one matter which must have escaped every one of these critics of the proposed Amendment? If hon. Members will turn to Clause 5 of the Bill, they will find the following:
The powers of the Board of Trade under this Act shall in relation to articles of food to which the Act applies be exercised jointly or in agreement with the Food Controller.
So that in the sphere in which the Board acts—
They will be brought in in regard to matters in which the Board of Trade are already controlling. May I just mention to hon. Members that during the War—and I should have thought they would have realised it—one of the most essential things that we had to have control over, and without control of which we might have lost the War, was leather. That control was exercised entirely by the Board of Trade.
I hope the Committee will not accept this Amendment. I think we all agree that profiteering is merely a by-product of the War, and that it would not be caused except, for Government interference, trust manipulations, or labour limitations. If these things were out of the way, profiteering would cease of its own accord. It has got to be put down. I believe the Board of Trade certainly to be the best party to do it. I was very much interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Hull said when he suggested that the Food Ministry should have charge of the matter, because, he said, they represented the interests of the consumers. My opinion is that the Food Ministry represents the interests of the country, and that they have done what is best for the country. I think they have acted in a very businesslike way at the expense of the consumers, because their Report says that they made £13,500,000 last year for the country. I trust the Board of Trade will control this matter.
I hope the hon. Member will press this to a Division. I have one reason, and one reason only, for speaking. I maintain the Board of Trade has not the competence that we require for this matter, whereas, on the other hand, the Ministry of Food, in my opinion, has the entire confidence of the country. I shall hope to improve the measure in Committee. It may be a forlorn hope. It is a very bad measure indeed, and I think this Amendment will be an improvement. If we can improve the measure it will be better administered by the Ministry of Food; if we cannot improve it, then, by all means, leave it to its parents, so that odium of its failure shall react on its author.
In this Debate one thing has been lost sight of by hon. Members opposite, and that is that this is a question purely of impartiality. We are now putting forward proposals which will set up bodies, and result ultimately in proceedings under the Criminal Law. Under those circumstances you want to be perfectly impartial. What would have been said in this House if, when the Military Service Acts were passing through Committee, it had been proposed to set up a tribunal composed of people from the War Office and Admiralty to deal with the matter, instead of doing what was done, putting the matter under the purview of the Local Government Board, as a perfectly independent Department of State? The Food Controller may have done his work excellently. I am not here to say anything on that point—
I am not so sure! When a man makes £13,500,000 can he be said to be impartial? Whoever administers this matter, I submit, ought to have the confidence of the whole country. It is all very well to condemn this Bill as a bad one. Something is necessary. Even if the Bill only results in the setting up of these tribunals, those concerned may be frightened into some more righteous courses, and make it unnecessary to pro- ceed still further. The Bill, as it is, is the best that can be done at this moment, and I for one hope it will go into every ramification of trade—wholesale, retail, and every conceivable avenue. I think the persons who administer it ought to be above reproach, and not be connected with the Food Ministry, or to be carrying on business of a similar sort.
I would express my profound surprise that much of what has been said was not said on Second Reading. "It is a bad Bill," say some; "It is a good Bill," say others; "Nothing could be done better," say some; whilst other raise their hands and say the whole thing is past praying for. We all know full well there will be "snags" in this Bill which is dealing with an acute situation, which is causing a great deal of unrest, and has forced upon this House—
Ought not this speech to have been made, Mr. Whitley, on the Second Reading?
I wanted to say that a large number of us will support the Government in the proposal that this Department shall be dealt with by the Board of Trade. We believe it to be a right and proper thing. The Department has regard to the trade of the whole country in every particular, as had been pointed out by the hon. and gallant Gentleman who referred to leather. The Department has to touch everything. [An HON. MEMBER: "The leather?"] I have yet to learn that leather comes under the purview of the Food Controller! [Laughter.] It is very delightful on this warm afternoon to find the House in such a humourous mood, and it can only augur very well for the speedy passing of this measure. I want the Department that has to do with the trade of the entire country to have within its keeping this question of profiteering. Implicit confidence as we have in the Food Controller—many of us have worked in helping in our local areas—yet we feel that the right and proper thing to do is to put this under the control of the Board of Trade. I use this argument for one reason. I am very hopeful that the Board of Trade, when charged with this responsibility, will take steps to call the attention of the country to the fact that this question of profiteering is very largely in the hands of the people themselves, and that if they were only wise and reasonable and—
I am afraid the hon. Member is going into a general argument.
I beg to move, in Subsection (1), after the word "article" ["in respect of any article "], to insert the words "or the rent of any shop."
I desire to extend the sphere of activity of the authority in this matter, in view of the fact that I believe I have amplecases to prove that there is an extraordinary amount of profiteering going on in connection with the rents of shops and business premises.
On a point of Order. Does this Amendment come within the scope of the Bill, having regard to the Preamble? Is not this Amendment quite out of order? The Preamble, of the Bill deals with articles produced and the handling and distribution of such articles. Surely, the rent of a shop is not an article?
The Preamble of a Bill is governed by the Bill, and not the Bill by the Preamble. I looked carefully at this Amendment, but I did not feel able to say that it was outside the scope of the word "profiteering." The Committee must decide.
May I suggest, Mr. Whitley, that the question of the rent of shops and other premises is already settled and profiteering prevented by the various Rent Acts which have been passed?
That really is a question that the Committee must deal with, not myself. I find no warrant for saying that this Amendment is outside the scope of the Bill.
The Committee is not bound by that Sub-section till it is passed. The title of the Bill is a very wide one—"to check profiteering."
I was saying before I was interrupted so unnecessarily that there is indeed an enormous amount of profiteering going on in connection with the fixing of rents of shops and business premises. The rapacity of the landlords is well-known to the House in view of the fact that the House has had to deal, by various pieces of legislation, with the activities of this class of the community. It appears to me there is great hardship being created for the tenants on the one hand, and, obviously, the tenants pass, or attempt to pass, on in some way their increased rent: consequently the increase of rent, in my opinion, adds to the prices, and also to profiteering. I am assured on very good evidence that in the East End of London, where most shops are let on weekly tenancies, the increase of rent has been enormous. All these traders, I am assured, are beyond the limits of the Rent Act which this House has passed. I also have here a communication from one of the biggest manufacturing firms in this country which has in the provinces a number of retail shops, and they tell me that they have received a communication from one of the landlords to this effect:
I have received a definite offer of a considerably increased rent from a firm for the shop now occupied by you.
And the letter goes on to ask what this firm is prepared to pay for the retention of possession of the shop in view of this offer. If these facts are correct, and I have no reason to doubt them, it is essential and desirable that the inquiry should go far beyond the provisions laid down in this Bill.
Undoubtedly, the provisions of the Bill do not govern the
Preamble, and the terms of the Preamble do not govern the provisions of the Bill. My hon. Friend is aware that the change he is proposing is one of a very fundamental character. Whether one looks at the Preamble or the provisions of the Bill it is obvious that what is being dealt with is profiteering in articles being produced, handled, and distributed. The words of this Amendment would have the effect of making Clause I read:
Subject to the provisions of this Act the Board of Trade shall have power in respect of any article or the rent of any shop to which this Act applies.
The Act does not apply to the rent of any shop, and we should have a series of consequential Amendments dealing with the kind of shops and the amount of rents to which it is proposed to apply the Act. I submit that this Bill has already got a sufficiently difficult subject matter, and the Committee ought not at this stage to introduce the question as to the proper rents for business premises, and to introduce that subject into this measure would only complicate matters and delay the passage of the Bill.
I do not think the Attorney-General has quite appreciated the effect of Sub-section (5) of Clause 1, which says:
This Act applies to any article or class of articles to which it is applied by Order of the Board of Trade.
If this Amendment wore carried, it would not unduly widen the scope of the Bill, nor would the difficulty about the class of shops come in, because the Board of Trade would be able to select the rentals and the class of shops to which it applies. It is extremely important that no form of profiteering should escape from the provisions of this measure. You already have a number of people complaining that they are being singled out for penalties, and it would create a very bad impression if landlords were allowed to escape. I can imagine the feeling of the country against the deliberate action of the House of Commons in exempting that class, and it will not redound to the credit of the Committee or the Government if such an exemption is allowed. Surely a Bill intended to deal with profiteering in articles must include a shop which is produced by labour, which is capable of having its price forced up owing to the increased cost of production, with the result that the occupier of a shop paying £25 a year finds his rent being pushed up to £50 or £75 a year. You are getting every day gross cases where men are not only being penalised in business, but actually being driven out of their shops, which are being handed over to somebody else, solely by profiteering in shop property. If there is one class of profiteering worse than another, it is that which is enforced against the small shopkeeper, because it tends to fall upon the shoulders of the community or else it drives the shopkeeper out of the business. Therefore, I hope that the Government will include profiteering in shops and thus convey to the country some form of uni-
formity and justice instead of exempting a particular class. I hope my hon. Friend will press his Amendment to a Division, and if he does I shall support him in the Lobby, for I am sure it will be extremely unpopular to vote against this Amendment.
It is not so much the shop owner and the small shopkeeper who are suffering from profiteering, but the middle classes. We have relieved a particular class by the restrictions already in force, and in the case of small dwellings the House of Commons imposed proper restrictions. While I agree that this is not the proper Bill to move such an Amendment as this, I am decidedly of opinion that the time is coming when the Government should consider the question of raising the limit under the Rent Restrictions Act or else of establishing a Land Court or Rent Court to which people can go who think they are being unduly taken advantage of and exploited in this way. It has come within my own knowledge during the last few weeks that cases have occurred where men have received notices to quit in regard to their shops, and the same applies to their private residences held on short leases. The thing is becoming widespread, and in these cases 50 per cent. was added to the rent. It is time this kind of thing should come to an end, and I think the middle classes ought to have a say in this matter. Food and everything else has gone up in price, and although rents are quite safe they are being increased 50 and even 100 per cent. I agree, however, that this is not the right place to deal with the matter, and as a lawyer I realise that it must be done under the Rents Restriction Act or by the constitution of a Rent Court.
When the hon. and gallant Member says that a Land Court is the best way out of the difficulty, may I remind him that the provisions of this Bill are equal to the powers of a Land Court? The rents of shops, particularly in the poorer parts of large towns, add considerably to the cost of the articles sold by the individual who owns that shop, because they have to be taken into account in calculating the expenses, and in fixing the price at which he or she intends to sell commodities in that shop. It all has to come out of the cost of the articles on sale, and any increase of rent that is put forward by a landlord undoubtedly affects the price of the commodities sold, and consequently to strike at that is also to strike at the profiteering that is going on.
Mr. T. THOMSON:
I want to ask whether my Amendment fixing maximum wholesale and retail prices will be out of order if this Amendment is rejected?
I take it that my Amendment covers a much wider field, and this Amendment refers only to the lent of shops. The Amendment specifies, first, that costs shall include a rent—that i3 to say, rent not merely of a shop but rent on royalties. I think the whole question of costs should be included in, that way. I think you are narrowing very much indeed the interpretation of the term "profiteering" as understood in the country, and I think it would be most unfortunate if this Bill at the outset does not command the confidence of the country as a whole. Although we are including the cost of wages and other things, we are refusing to include the cost of land, which really is at the root of reduced production, and which surely is also at the root of high costs and profiteering. We have been told repeatedly that the real cure is increased production, and how can you get that unless you are going to prevent profiteering in land as well as in other things? It seems to me that in a measure of this sort you want to have wider powers in order that the whole question of profiteering shall be taken into consideration, and in order that no section of the community shall be penalised at the expense of the other. I regret that the question of rents will not be included in profiteering under this Bill.
Surely this Amendment will not rule out my Amendment to include land, minerals, etc.? I understood that this Amendment was dealing with the question of the rent of shops.
That will depend upon what the present decision may be. If the Committee decides this point in the negative I cannot go on taking similar Amendments, although they may vary in magnitude.
The Committee is really up against an important point, and on this Amendment it has to decide whether rent, as part of the cost of an article shall be excluded from this Bill. If that is not so, I do not quite see why a decision on this Amendment should rule out the wider Amendment of my hon. Friend who wishes the question of rent, interest, and insurance to be explicitly mentioned in the Bill as part of the cost of an article. They are implicitly there, but the object of that. Amendment is to have them explicitly named, and that is rather important, because this is an inquiry of extraordinary magnitude set up under extraordinary conditions. I observe that there is an Amendment down to insert after the word "cost" the word "wages,'' and that appears to be a right tiling to do.
It appears to me that both, those cases of wages and of rent and insurance are necessarily covered by the word "costs," and that it would be only superfluous to move the Amendments. In fact, they might possibly defeat the object on view by leaving out something.
Does not that really mean that these questions have to be considered when a case of profiteering in an article came up? We seek by this-and other Amendments to provide that profiteering in land, rent, or shops shall also be a subject which may be brought before die tribunal. The statement from the Chair merely means that these- things will be considered when profiteering in an article occurs, but we want profiteering in Land itself to be punishable.
That is a point on which the present Amendment differs from the one to which reference has been made.
We arc very anxious that it should be quite clear that this question of rent is not excluded. Some of us thought that the decision to be taken on this Amendment would exclude the question of rent, but we have now got information of some value on the point.
I am not quite happy about this matter yet. If this Amendment is negatived, I understand that it will negative the question as to whether profiteering in land is to be included in the Bill. If the Committee vote against this Amendment and turn it down, it will mean that landlords can profiteer as much as they like and can selltheir land at 400 and 500 years' purchase and yet be exempt from the; Bill. They cannot be brought before the tribunal or dealt with in any way under this Bill, if this Amendment is turned down. In that ease, there-is all the more need why everybody who has the slightest belief in the fairness and justice of this House should support this Amendment. I cannot imagine a Bill being passed dealing with everybody else and leaving out the landlord, who, notoriously, has made the most profit out of the land. It seems to me perfectly monstrous to exempt the landlord, although we do not exempt the brewer. Every other profession and every other form of occupation is roped in under this Bill, and the only person excluded is the landlord. If that is the sort of legislation which this House likes, I think the country will give them a rude awakening.
|Division No. 95.]||AYES.||[5.20 p.m.|
|Darnes, Major H. (Newcastle, E.)||Hall, F. (Yorks, Normanton)||Ross, Frank H.|
|Beauchamp, Sir Edward||Hartshorn, V.||Rowlands, James|
|Bell, James (Ormskirk)||Hirst, G. H.||Royce, William Stapleton|
|Bowerman, Rt. Hon. C. W.||Holmes, J. S.||Sexton, James|
|Brace, Rt. Hon. William||Jones, G. W. H. (Stoke Newington)||Shaw, Tom (Preston)|
|Briant, F.||Kenworthy, Lieut.-Commander||Smith, Capt. A. (Nelson and Colne)|
|Bromfield, W.||Kenyon, Barnet||Spencer, George A.|
|Cairns, John||Kiley, James Daniel||Swan, J. E. C.|
|Cape, Tom||Lunn, William||Thomas, Brig.-Gen. Sir O. (Anglesey)|
|Carter, W. (Mansfield)||Maclean, Neil (Glasgow, Govan)||Thomson, T. (Middlesbrough, W.)|
|Cowan, Sir H. (Aberdeen and Kinc.)||Maclean, Rt. Hon. Sir D. (Midlothlan)||Thorne,G. R. (Wolverhampton, E.)|
|Crooks, Rt. Hon. William||Mallalieu, Frederick William||Thorn, Colonel W. (Plaistow)|
|Davies, Alfred (Clitheroe)||Murray, Dr. D. (Western Isles)||Walsh, S. (Ince, Lancs.)|
|Davison, J. E. (Smethwick)||Newbould, A. E.||Wedgwood, Col. Josiah C.|
|Dawes, J. A.||Onions, Alfred||Williams, A. (Consett, Durham)|
|Edwards, C. (Bedwelty)||Parkinson, John Allen (Wigan)||Williams, J (Gower, Glam.)|
|Entwistle, Major C. F.||Pearce, Sir William||Wilson, W. T. (Westhoughton)|
|Gardiner, J. (Perth)||Rae, H. Norman||Wood, Major Mackenzie (Aberdeen, C.)|
|Gilbert, James Daniel||Raffan, Peter Wilson||Yeo, Sir Alfred William|
|Gould, J. C.||Rees, Captain J. Tudor (Barnstaple)||Young, William (Perth and Kinross)|
|Graham, W. (Edinburgh)||Rendall, Atheistan|
|Grundy, T. W.||Richardson, R. (Houghton)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—Mr|
|Guest, J. (Hemsworth, York)||Roberts, F. O. (W. Bromwich)||A, Short and Mr. T. Griffiths.|
|Adair, Rear-Admiral||Fraser, Major Sir Keith||Nicholl, Com. Sir Edward|
|Agg.-Gardner, Sir James Tynte||Gardner, E. (Berks, Windsor)||Nlcholson, W. (Petersfield)|
|Ainsworth, Captain C.||Geddes, Rt. Hon. Sir A. C. (Basingstoke)||Nield, Sir Herbert|
|Baird, John Lawrence||Gibbs, Colonel George Abraham||Norris, Colonel Sir Henry G.|
|Baldwin, Stanley||Gilmour, Lieut.-Colonel John||Palmer, Brig.-General G. (Westbury)|
|Balfour, George (Hampstead)||Goulding, Rt. Hon. Sir E. A.||Parker, James|
|Banbury, Rt. Hon. Sir F. G.||Grant, James Augustus||Parry, Lt.-Colonel Thomas Henry|
|Barlow, Sir Montague (Salford, S.)||Gray, Major E.||Pease, Rt. Hon. Herbert Pike|
|Barnett, Major Richard W.||Greame, Major P. Lloyd||Perkins, Walter Frank|
|Barnston, Major Harry||Green, J. F. (Leicester)||Perring, William George|
|Barrand, A. R.||Greig, Colonel James William||Pollock, Sir Ernest Murray|
|Beck, Arthur Cecil||Griggs, Sir Peter||Pratt, John William|
|Bell, Lieut.-Col. W. C. H. (Devizes)||Gritten, W. G. Howard||Prescott, Major W. H.|
|Bellairs, Cam. Carlyon W.||Guinness, Lt.-Col. Hon. W. E. (B. St. E.)||Pretyman, Rt. Hon. Ernest G.|
|Benn, Sir Arthur S. (Plymouth)||Hacking, Captain D. H.||Pulley, Charles Thornton|
|Betterton, H. B.||Hailwood, A.||Purchase, H. G.|
|Birchall, Major J. D.||Hallas, E.||Raeburn, Sir William|
|Bird, Alfred||Henry, Denis S. (Londonderry, S.)||Ratcliffe, Henry Butler|
|Blades, Sir George R.||Hewart, Rt. Hon. Sir Gordon||Raw, Lieut.-Colonel Dr.|
|Blair, Major Reginald||Hilder, Lieut.-Col. F.||Remnant, Colonel Sir James|
|Borwick, Major G. O.||Hills, Major J. W. (Durham)||Renwick, G.|
|Bowyer, Captain G. W. E.||Hoare, Lt.-Col. Sir Samuel J. G.||Richardson, Alex. (Gravesend)|
|Brackenbury, Captain H. L.||Hopkinson, Austin (Mossley)||Robinson, S. (Brecon and Radnor)|
|Bridgeman, William Clive||Howard, Major S. G.||Rogers, Sir Hallewell|
|Briggs, Harold||Hughes, Spencer Leigh||Roundell, Lieut.-Colonel R. F.|
|Britton, G. B.||Hunter, General Sir A. (Lancaster)||Samuel, A. M. (Farnham, Surrey)|
|Broad, Thomas Tucker||Hurd, P. A.||Sanders, Colonel Robert Arthur|
|Brown, Captain D. C. (Hexham)||Hurst, Major G. B.||Seager, Sir William|
|Brown, T. W. (Down, N.)||Inskip, T. W. H.||Shaw, Hon. A. (Kilmarnock)|
|Buchanan, Lieut.-Col. A. L. H.||Jackson, Lieut.-Col. Hon. F. S. (York)||Shaw, Captain W. T. (Forfar)|
|Buckley, Lt.-Col. A.||Jameson, Major J. G.||Shortt, Rt. Hon. E. (N'castle-on-T., W.)|
|Bull, Rt. Hon. Sir William James||Jodrell, N. P.||Simm, Colonel M. T|
|Burgoyne, Lt.-Col. Alan Hughes||Jones, J. Towyn (Carmarthen)||Sprot, Colonel Sir Alexander|
|Butcher, Sir J. G.||Kellaway, Frederick George||Stanley, Col. Hon. G. F. (Preston)|
|Campbell, J. G. D.||Kerr-Smiley, Major Peter Kerr||Stephenson, Colonel H. K.|
|Campion, Colonel W. R.||Kidd, James||Stevens, Marshall|
|Carew, Charles R. S. (Tiverton)||King, Commander Douglas||Stewart, Gershom|
|Casey, T. W.||Knights, Captain H.||Sutherland, Sir William|
|Cecil, Rt. Hon. Lord R. (Hitchin)||Larmor, Sir J.||Talbot, G. A. (Hemel Hempstead)|
|Chadwick, R. Burton||Law, A. J, (Rochdale)||Taylor, J. (Dumbarton)|
|Clough, R.||Law. Right Hon. A. Bonar (Glasgow)||Thomson, Sir W. Mitchell- (M'yhl)|
|Clyde, James Avon||Lindsay, William Arthur||Tickler, Thomas George|
|Cobb, Sir Cyril||Lister, Sir R. Ashton||Townley, Maximilan G.|
|Cockerill, Brig.-General G. K.||Lloyd, George Butler||Tryon Major George Clement|
|Colvin, Brig-Gen. R. B.||Locker-Lampson, G. (Wood Green)||Waddington, R.|
|Conway, Sir W. Martin||Locker-Lampson, Com. O. (Hunt'don)||Wallace, J.|
|Cope, Major W. (Glamorgan)||Long, Rt. Hon. Walter||Walton, J. (York, Don Valley)|
|Cory, Sir James Herbert (Cardiff)||Lort-Williams, J.||Ward-Jackson, Major C. L.|
|Cowan, D. M. (Scottish Univ.)||Loseby, Captain C. E.||Ward. Colonel L. (Kingston-upon-Hull)|
|Cozens-Hardy, Hon. W. H.||Lowe, Sir F. W.||Warner, Sir T. Courtenay T.|
|Cralk, Right Hon. Sir Henry||M'Curdy, Charles Albert||Warren, Sir Alfred H.|
|Curzon, Commander Viscount||M'Laren, R. (Lanark, N.)||Weston, Colonel John W.|
|Dalziel, Sir Davison (Brixton)||Maemaster, Donald||Wheler, Colonel Granville C. H.|
|Davidson, Major-Gen. Sir John H.||McMicking, Major Gilbert||Whittaker, Rt. Hon. Sir Thomas P.|
|Davison, T. (Cirencester)||Macquisten, F. A.||Wild, Sir Ernest Edward|
|Davison, Sir W. H. (Kensington)||Maddocks, Henry||Winfrey, Sir Richard|
|Dennis, J. W.||Malone, Col. C. L. (Leyton, E.)||Wolmer, Viscount|
|Dewhurst, Lieut-Com. H.||Malone, Major P. (Tottenham, S.)||Wood, Major Hon. E. (Ripon)|
|Doyle, N. Grattan||Mildmay, Col. Rt. Hon. Francis B.||Woolcock, W. J. U.|
|Du Pre, Colonel W. B.||Mitchell, William Lane-||Worsfold, T. Cato|
|Elliot, Capt. W. E. (Lanark)||Mond, Rt. Hon. Sir Alfred Moritz||Yate, Col. Charles Edward|
|Eyres-Monsell, Commander||Moreing, Captain Algernon H.||Young. Sir F. W. (Swindon)|
|Falle, Major Sir Bertram Godfray||Murchison, C. K.||Younger, Sir George|
|Farquharson, Major A. C.||Murray, Major C. D. (Edinburgh, S.)|
|Flannery, Sir J. Fortescue||Murray, William (Dumfries)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—Lord E.|
|Forestier-Walker, L.||Nail, Major Joseph||Talbot and Mr. Dudley Ward.|
|Fexcroft, Captain C.||Newman, Sir R. H. S. D. (Exeter)|
I beg to move, in Subsection (1, a), after the word "investigate," to insert the word "publicly."
I anticipated this Amendment in moving my first Amendment, when I indicated that it was vitally necessary to make this Bill in any way a success that there should be an inquiry, and that the proceedings should, as far as possible, be in public. I did not get any satisfaction with regard to the first part, but as to the second, the hon. Gentleman was good enough to say he thought I was right. I should only be wasting the time of the House if I were to speak further until I know more of the right hon. Gentleman's intentions.
I do not think, and I am sure my hon. Friend will agree, that this is the proper place to bring in any Amendment with regard to reporting the proceedings before the tribunals. The proper place would be on Clause 4, where I shall be prepared to consider whether it is possible, should the House think fit, to move an Amendment which would have the effect of making it possible for cases that are raised on complaint, but not cases raised on the initiative of the Board itself, to be dealt with in public should the tribunal deem it expedient. But where the actual investigation is by the Board of Trade itself then I do not think such a provision should apply.
The proposal of the President of the Board of Trade is that the people who come before the local tribunals, and in the main it will be the small shop-keeping class, should have their cases heard in public, whereas the Board of Trade's complaints against the merchant and the wholesaler will be dealt with in private.
I am sure my hon. Friend does not desire to speak under a misapprehension. That is not what I propose, nor did I say it. I said that at the stage where there was an investigation proceeding on the initiative of the Board there could be no publicity until the evidence was complete, as otherwise serious injury might result, but where the complaint is made, whether it be against the smallest profiteer or the largest then there should be an arrangement for publicity if the tribunal investigating the case thinks fit. I also said that at the end of the investigation, as provided in the Bill, where there is a prosecution there shall be full publicity and also when the decision is given.
I think that, in effect, what I stated was correct. No investigations can be made until a complaint is forthcoming either from the Board of Trade or from an individual. With all due respect to the Attorney-General—
There are two ways in which an investigation may be started, one is by complaint, the other is by the initiative by the Board of Trade, which initiative does not necessarily take the form of complaint.
Of course, I accept what my right hon. and learned Friend says, that these cases can be tried either on the complaint of the individual or on the initiative of the Board of Trade. But in how many cases are we going to have complaints made against the merchant or the manufacturer? The manufacturer or the retailer is not going to lodge a complaint against the merchant, and the retailer is not going to lodge a complaint against the manufacturer if he can make a reasonable profit for himself however exorbitant the charges of the manufacturer or merchant may be. More than that, it the retailer made a complaint against the manufacturer or the merchant he would be a marked man, and he would have against him, not only that particular merchant or manufacturer but every other manufacturer and every other merchant in the same trade or in the same market, and they would all refuse to supply him. In these days -when the supply is leas than the demand the retailer, except in the case of the goods which are rationed, depends for his supplies on the favour of the manufacturers or the merchant. Should he lodge a complaint against either of them he might very easily ruin himself in the process. Few will care to take the risk, and the result will be that the Board of Trade will have itself to initiate proceedings, and under those circumstances, as I understand it, the President suggests that these cases shall be heard privately and that only when complaint is made should they be heard publicly. [Sir A. GEDDES dissented.] What it comes down to is this, that when the complaint is made against the retailer it will be heard in public, but when the Board of Trade initiates proceedings against either a merchant or a, manufacturer they will be heard" in private.
I think the hon. Member who last spoke is under a misapprehension. In my opinion the Government are right in the line they have taken, that is supposing I accurately understand their policy, although I admit it is very difficult to be quite sure about it as the Bill is drafted. It is, I am afraid, rather obscure. But if I understand the Bill rightly, it has two quite separate objects—one is to make an investigation all over the country into the costs, and so on, of particular articles with a view of ascertaining in a general way what is the reason for the rise in prices. That inquiry may furnish material for any further legislation or further measures that ought to be taken. My right hon. Friend said, and I think quite fairly, that with respect to that investigation there ought at any rate to be a presumption that it is going to be private, because undoubtedly you are going to investigate the private trading affairs of the whole trading community in. this country. It may be a very laborious and it may be a. very harassing inquiry, but it would be impossible to make any investigation into prices if it were known it is going to be public. Then there is a quite separate object, and as far as I can see, in the case where a complaint is made, that complaint can be made either by a private individual or by the Board of Trade. I think, however, you will not be able to hit the large trader, the rings and the trusts who are the worst offenders in this respect, unless you have publicity. You will only hit the miserable little profiteering village shopkeeper. You will not hit those big trusts which are causing such great injury to the public at this moment.
There may, I understand, in regard to this be something in the nature of a trial, and if I may be permitted to say so I thought it was a great blot on this Bill as originally drawn that that which amounts practically to a trial should be held in private. It is quite true, if you are going to have proceedings as a result of these inquiries then those proceedings will be in public, but I do not think my right hon. Friend has quite appreciated—and at any rate nothing he has said has shown his appreciation of the point—that the whole mischief may be done before you get to the Court of Summary Jurisdiction. If hon. Members will read paragraph 2 of Sub-section (b) of Clause I it will be found, for instance, that the seller may be required to repay to the complainant any amount paid by the complainant in excess of a price which would yield a reasonable profit. That may be, as I understand, part of the original inquiry. In fact, that particular transaction may end in an order requiring the repayment of certain moneys by the seller. That really is a very serious matter. It may be some of these small people will be brought up and charged with having sold at excessive prices. They have to defend it. They fail to make good their defence. But the only question which will be left for trial will merely be whether the retailer has complied with the Order made by the Board of Trade. The defendant will not be allowed to go into the question before the Court of Summary Jurisdiction whether or not the price is a fair price, because that will have been decided by the inquiry before the local tribunal. There will be no revision at all of that decision. I think that all the pro- ceedings should be in public absolutely unless there is some specific reason for holding them in private. There, may be the grossest hardship to the trader unless you have that publicity for the protection of everybody concerned. I hope my right hon. Friend will give full satisfaction on that point. I would like to point out how the confusion arises. There are, I repeat, two entirely separate objects. One is to make an investigation into the general rise of prices, and the second is to provide a means of hitting individual profiteers. These are two entirely different kinds of procedure. They will have nothing whatever to do with each other. One is in the nature of a trial and the other in the nature of an inquiry, and I hope my right hon. Friend will agree that proceedings which are in the nature of a trial shall have the utmost publicity. The inquiry into prices ought to be, generally speaking, a private inquiry like, for instance, the Census of Production. I venture to think my hon. Friends opposite are wrong in the view they have taken, and that it would be well for them to accept the offer of the Government, providing, of course, it can be made clear.
I find myself very reluctantly in disagreement with the Noble Lord who has just spoken, and I base that disagreement solely on the Report of the Committee on Trusts made to the Home Secretary, and produced in April last, although unfortunately no steps whatever appear to have been taken in the matter until clamour produced this hasty, ill-framed, and, as we believe, ineffectual Bill. This Report lays it down as desirable that every means should be provided whereby the fullest information as to the activities of trade associations may be made available to the public so that they may be thoroughly and promptly investigated, so as to get rid of all doubts and suspicions, and secure the true facts as to the evils for which a remedy is required. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Food Ministry himself, in a very admirable speech made on the Second Reading, insisted on publicity for all proceedings against either rings or combines. I shall be very glad to hear how we are to get this publicity if the trial of these big rings is to take place in private. I do not believe the man in the street will accept any such proposal.
think the Bill is pretty clear as drawn, and if hon. Members will look at the Amendment tabled by the President of the Board of Trade later on, in which he gives himself power to initiate proceedings following upon an investigation started by the Board of Trade, I think they will see that the two objects are clearly distinguished. As the Bill is drawn, under paragraph (a) the Board of Trade limit themselves simply to an investigation, and the matter more or less stops there as regards the powers under this Bill. But under the Amendment which will be proposed they will be able to follow with a prosecution, just as they or the local tribunals can, following upon an investigation in regard to a. complaint under paragraph (b). I find it difficult to contend against the argument that has been adduced against publicity, but at the same time I feel that publicity is of enormous importance in connection with this Bill, not only for the purpose of checking profiteering, but for the purposes of education. It would be an immense advantage to our people as a whole, and the best possible lesson in economics, if they could be made to appreciate, on evidence obtained in the most public manner, the real factors which arc producing the increased costs which we have to bear to-day. Hon. Members will notice that under Clause 4 the information obtained at the Board of Trade inquiry is to be entirely confidential, although there is a proviso which enables them to publish findings.
I am afraid that official findings will have comparatively little weight with the people we want to educate. They approach official opinions and findings with some amount of suspicion, which we do not want. I would risk the possible damage which a public inquiry might do to the complex trade of this country for the greater advantage, at this particular juncture, of educating our people in what are the factors in the cost of articles today. The idea is not at all new. Price-fixing measures, very similar to this, have been in existence in Australia for two or three years. I do not know that they have been satisfactory in all respects, but I know that they have yielded results, and the publicity aspect of the question in regard to those Acts has been beneficial. May I give the Committee a single instance? It is not an uncommon factor in a, new country to say that you sell an article—boots, for instance—under the title that it is produced in another country. An English boot or an American boot commands support. The consequence is that one sees the shops filled with boots made in America or boots made in England at very enhanced prices. There was a public inquiry in Australia under a Bill very similar to this, and it soon transpired, under a vigorous cross-examination, that practically none of those boots were made in England or in the United States. Very shortly after the fact became known, there was a universal writing down in prices throughout the boot shops in that country. That is an instance where publicity was immediately beneficial in curing profiteering. I look at the investigation under paragraph (a) as being not so much a means of checking profiteering, but as a means of informing the public, in the first place, of what the trusts are doing, so that public opinion may have very effective weight in that direction, and also of informing the public, especially a certain section of the public, how much they themselves individually contribute to high costs, so that they may realise that they cannot continually ask for increased wages and shorter hours and ignore the question of production, and at the same time ask Parliament to keep down the price of commodities which they wish to buy.
We shall all agree with the remarks of the hon. Member as to the desirability of making the proceedings public, but the point is at what stage should they be made public? There is a good deal of confusion of thought as to the effect of this Amendment. I would call the attention of the Committee to the fact that it only asks that the proceedings in the preliminary investigation—that is the proceedings referred to in paragraph (a)—should be made public. To that the answer of the President of the Board of Trade is conclusive. He says that these investigations are of a general nature into the general trade of the country to see whether there is anything in the nature of genera] profiteering. It stands to reason that those investigations should be of a confidential character. If they result in a complaint being lodged or a trial being held, that is a very different matter. I quite agree that those proceedings should be held in public, but for the present we are not considering that at all; we are only dealing with paragraph (a). There should be no two opinions about the fact of these preliminary investigations being of a confidential character.
May I add one word upon the scheme of the Bill as it will be with the Amendment hereafter to be proposed by my right hon. Friend? There are three distinct things which are contemplated. The first is the general investigation of prices, costs, and profits; the second is the investigation of complaints, leading, it may be, to some or other of the consequences mentioned in the Bill; and the third is the taking of proceedings before a Court of Summary Jurisdiction, arising out of either an investigation under paragraph (a) or an investigation of a complaint under paragraph (b). So far as publicity is concerned, what we propose to do by way of meeting the representations that have been made is to give publicity to the investigation of complaints under paragraph (b) and publicity to proceedings under the new Sub-section (2) where those proceedings arise either from the general investigation under paragraph (a) or from the investigation of complaints under paragraph (b). I should have thought that that suggestion would have met all the reasonable requirements of publicity.
I may say a word in regard to the position. I do not agree that what the Attorney-General has said meets the case I have in mind. I am a member of the High Prices Committee, and, as we have decided to carry on our deliberations in public, it seems that very much of what is comprised in the inevstigation under paragraph (a) ought also to be public. I quite concede that there might be certain special delicate cases which should be relieved of publicity, but, taking the matter generally, if the public are to have confidence in these tribunals or Committees, and are to trust to their findings, the general survey and investigation will have to be in public. Therefore, this Amendment is one that ought to be accepted. I do not wish to labour it or to obstruct in the slightest degree, but I submit that in the public interest it is the only safe course to follow, except in individual cases where there might be danger resulting to-an individual, that the whole investigation should be made in public.
|Division No. 96]||AYES.||[5.56 p. m.|
|Bell, James (Ormskirk)||Hall, F. (Yorks, Normanton)||Rose, Frank H.|
|Benn, Capt. W. (Leith)||Hirst, G. H.||Royce, William Stapleton|
|Bowerman, Rt. Hon. C. W||Hogge, J. M.||Sexton, James|
|Briant, F.||Holmes, J. S.||Shaw, Tom (Preston)|
|Bromfield, W.||Jones, J. (Silvertown)||Short, A. (Wednesbury)|
|Cairns, John||Kelly, Major Fred (Rotherham)||Smith, Capt. A. (Nelson and Colne)|
|Cape, Tom||Kenworthy, Lieut.-Commander||Smith, W. (Wellingborough)|
|Carter, W. (Mansfield)||Kenyon, Barnet||Spencer, George A.|
|Crooks, Rt. Hon. William||Lunn, William||Swan, J. E. C.|
|Davies, Alfred (Clitheroe)||Maclean, Neil (Glasgow, Govan.)||Thorne, Col. W. (Plaistow)|
|Davison, J. E. (Smethwick)||Maclean, Rt. Hon. Sir D. (Midlothian)||Walsh, S. (Ince, Lancs.)|
|Dawes, J. A.||Murray, Dr. D. (Western Isles)||Wignall, James|
|Edwards, C. (Bedwellty)||Newbould, A. E.||Williams, J. (Gower, Glam.)|
|Entwistle, Major C. F.||Onions, Alfred||Wood, Major Mackenzie (Aberdeen, C.)|
|Finney, Samuel||Parkinson, John Allen (Wigan)||Young, Sir F. W. (Swindon)|
|Graham, W. (Edinburgh)||Raffan, Peter Wilson|
|Grundy, T. W.||Richardson, R. (Houghton)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—Mr.|
|Guest, J. (Hemsworth, York)||Roberts, F. O. (W. Bromwich)||G. Thorne and Mr. T. Wilson.|
|Adair, Rear-Admiral||Blair, Major Reginald||Cecil, Rt. Hon. Evelyn (Aston Manor)|
|Agg-Gardner, Sir James Tynte||Borwick, Major G. O.||Cecil, Rt. Hon. Lord R. (Hitchin)|
|Ainsworth, Captain C.||Bowyer, Captain G. W. E.||Clough, R.|
|Baird, John Lawrence||Brackenbury, Captain H. L.||Cobb, Sir Cyril|
|Baldwin, Stanley||Bridgeman, William Clive||Cockerill, Brig-General G. K.|
|Balfour, George (Hampstead)||Briggs, Harold||Colvin, Brig -Gen. R. B.|
|Banbury, Rt. Hon. Sir F. G.||Britton, G. B.||Conway, Sir W. Martin|
|Barlow, Sir Montague (Salford, S.)||Broad, Thomas Tucker||Cope, Major W. (Glamorgan)|
|Barnes, Major H. (Newcastle, E.)||Brown, Captain D. C. (Hexham)||Cory, Sir James Herbert (Cardiff)|
|Barnett, Major Richard W.||Brown, T. W. (Down, N.)||Cowan, D. M. (Scottish Univ.)|
|Barnston, Major Harry||Buchanan, Lieut.-Col. A. L. H.||Cozens-Hardy, Hon. W. H.|
|Barrand, A. R.||Buckley, Lt.-Col. A.||Craik, Right Hon, Sir Henry|
|Beauchamp, Sir Edward||Bull, Rt. Hon. Sir William James||Croft, Brig.-General Henry Page|
|Back, Arthur Cecil||Butcher, Sir J. G.||Curzon, Commander Viscount|
|Bell, Lieut.-Col. W. C. H. (Devizes)||Campbell, J. G. D.||Dalziel, Sir Davison (Brixton)|
|Benn, Sir Arthur S. (Plymouth)||Campion, Col. W. R.||Davidson, Major-Gen. Sir John H.|
|Betterton, H. B.||Carew, Charles R. S. (Tiverton)||Davies, T. (Cirencester)|
|Birchall, Major J. D.||Carter, R. A. D. (Manchester)||Davies, M. Vaughan- (Cardigan)|
|Bird, Alfred||Casey, T. W.||Davison, Sir W. H. (Kensington)|
|Denison-Pender, John C.||King, Commander Douglas||Raper, A. Baldwin|
|Dennis, J. W.||Knights, Captain H.||Ratcliffe, Henry Butler|
|Dewhurst, Lieut.-Com. H.||Larmor, Sir J.||Raw, Lieut.-Colonel Dr.|
|Doyle, N. Grattan||Law, Right Hon. A. Bonar (Glasgow)||Rees, Captain J. Tudor (Barnstaple)|
|Du Pre, Colonel W. B.||Lindsay, William Arthur||Remer, J. B.|
|Edge, Captain William||Lister, Sir R. Ashton||Rendall, Atheistan|
|Edwards, Major J. (Aberavon)||Lloyd, George Butler||Renwick, G.|
|Elliot, Capt. W. E. (Lanark)||Locker-Lampson, G. (Wood Green)||Richardson, Alex. (Gravesend)|
|Eyres-Monsell, Commander||Long, Rt. Hon. Walter||Robinson, S. (Brecon and Radnor)|
|Falle, Major Sir Bertram Godfray||Lorden, John William||Rogers, Sir Hallewell|
|Farquharson, Major A. C.||Lort-Williams, J.||Roundell, Lieut.-Colonel R, F.|
|FitzRoy, Capt. Han. Edward A.||Loseby, Captain C. E.||Rowlands, James|
|Flannery, Sir J. Fortescue||Lowe, Sir F. W.||Samuel, A. M. (Farnham, Surrey)|
|Foxcroft, Captain C.||M'Curdy, Charles Albert||Sanders, Colonel Robert Arthur|
|Fraser, Major Sir Keith||M'Laren, R. (Lanark, N.)||Seager, Sir William|
|Gardiner, J. (Perth)||McMicking, Major Gilbert||Shaw, Captain W. T. (Forfar)|
|Gardner, E. (Berks, Windsor)||Macquisten, F. A.||Shortt, Rt. Hon. E. (N' castle-on-T., W)|
|Geddes, Rt. Hon. Sir A. C (Basingstoke)||Maddocks, Henry||Simm, Colonel M. T|
|Gibbs, Colonel George Abraham||Mallalieu, Frederick William||Sprot, Colonel Sir Alexander|
|Gilbert, James Daniel||Malone, Col. C. L. (Leyton, E.)||Stanier, Captain Sir Beville|
|Gilmour, Lieut.-Colonel John||Malone, Major P. (Tottenham, S.)||Stanley, Col. Hon. G. F. (Preston)|
|Glyn, Major R.||Marks, Sir George Croydon||Stephenson, Colonel H. K.|
|Grant, James Augustus||Matthews, David||Stevens, Marshall|
|Gray Major E.||Mildmay, Col. Rt. Hon. Francis B.||Stewart, Gershom|
|Greame, Major P. Lloyd||Mitchell, William Lane-||Sugden, W. H.|
|Green, J. F. (Leicester)||Mond, Rt. Hon. Sir Alfred Moritz||Sutherland, Sir William|
|Greig, Col. James William||Morden, Col. H. Grant||Talbot, G. A. (Hamel Hempstead)|
|Griggs, Sir Peter||Moreing, Captain Algernon H.||Taylor, J. (Dumbarton)|
|Gritten, W. G. Howard||Morison, T. B. (Inverness)||Thomson, F. C. (Aberdeen, S.)|
|Guinness, Lt.-Col. Hon. W.E. (B. St. E.)||Murchison, C. K.||Thomson, Sir W. Mitchell- (M'yhl)|
|Hacking, Captain D. H.||Murray, Lt.-Col. Hon. A. C. (Aberdeen)||Tickler, Thomas George|
|Hailwood, A.||Murray, Major C. D. (Edinburgh, S.)||Townley, Maximilan G.|
|Henry, Denis S. (Londonderry, S.)||Murray, William (Dumfries)||Tryon, Major George Clement|
|Hewart, Rt. Hon. Sir Gordon||Nail, Major Joseph||Ward-Jackson, Major O. L.|
|Hilder, Lieut.-Colonel F.||Newman, Sir R. H. S. D. (Exeter)||Ward, Colonel L. (Kingston-upon-Hull)|
|Hills, Major J. W. (Durham)||Nicholson, W. (Petersfield)||Warner, Sir T. Courtenay T.|
|Hoare, Lt.-Col. Sir Samuel J. G.||Norris, Colonel Sir Henry G.||Warren, Sir Alfred H.|
|Hopkinson, Austin (Mossley)||Oman, C. W. C.||Weston, Colonel John W.|
|Howard, Major S. G.||Palmer, Brig-General G. (Westbury)||Wheler, Colonel Granville C. H.|
|Hughes, Spencer Leigh||Parker, James||Whittaker, Rt. Hon. Sir Thomas P.|
|Hunter. General Sir A. (Lancaster)||Pearce, Sir William||Wild, Sir Ernest Edward|
|Hurd, P. A.||Pease, Rt. Hon. Herbert Pike||Winfrey, Sir Richard|
|Hurst, Major G. B.||Pennefather, De Fonblanque||Wood, Major Hon. E. (Ripon)|
|Inskip, T. W. H.||Perkins, Walter Frank||Woolcock, W. J. U.|
|Jackson, Lieut.-Col. Hon. F. S. (York)||Perring, William George||Worsfold, T. Cato|
|Jameson, Major J. G.||Pollock, Sir Ernest Murray||Yate, Colonel Charles Edward|
|Jodrell, N. P.||Pratt, John William||Yeo, Sir Alfred William|
|Johnstone, J.||Prescott, Major W. H.||Young, William (Perth and Kinross)|
|Jones, G. W. H. (Stoke Newington)||Pretyman, Rt- Hon. Ernest G.||Younger, Sir George|
|Jones, J. Towyn (Carmarthen)||Pulley, Charles Thornton|
|Kellaway, Frederick George||Purchase, H. G.||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—Lord E.|
|Kerr-Smiley, Major Peter Kerr||Rae, H. Norman||Talbot and Mr. Dudley Ward.|
|Kidd, James||Raeburn, Sir William|
I beg to move, in paragraph (a), after the word "investigate ["to investigate prices, costs, and profit"], to insert the words "from the source"
We all desire to remove suspicion from the trader with regard to profiteering. I think the only way that can be done satisfactorily is to trace this thing to the source straight away. The Minister of Labour, speaking on this Bill, said they intended to probe the matter to the source. Since the Bill has been before the House I have deliberately gone to two traders and purchased the same article from one at 2s. 9d. and from the other at 3s. 6d. It might be said that the man who charged3s. 6d, is profiteering. It might also be said that the man who charged 2s. 9d. is profiteering. As a matter of fact neither of them is profiteering at all. The goods have come from one firm, and in that one road the firm has made two distinct charges in delivering the goods. Hence the people cannot afford to sell them at the first price. Therefore when you are making inquiries it will not be fair to say that the trader who charges 3s. 6d. is a profiteer, because he has had to pay at least another 4½d. to 6d. for the same article. You will get no satisfaction in this Bill; you will not remove suspicion from the people; you will not put an end to the unrest unless you tackle the thing at the source of supply. In my opinion the profiteers to day are the great combines, the rings, and the trusts. [An HON. MEMBER: "Landowners!"]They have always been in that cart. You never need worry about them. They can always take care of themselves. I mentioned the case of dried fruit a few days ago and said that if it had been left alone it could have been put on the market £12 to £14 per ton cheaper than it was being sold. Since I asked the question the Government has controlled dried fruit, and it can now be purchased at 7d. or 8d. a lb. cheaper than before I opened my mouth in this House. You have to go back to the source of supply. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to accept these words, which will give confidence to the outside public and make them believe the Government is anxious not to cripple the small trader, and to go straight for the large man who is responsible for making these excessive prices.
I quite realise the importance which attaches to this Amendment and sympathise very much with the hon. Member's motive, but I suggest that we should achieve the same result more clearly if we accepted the Amendment which stands next but one on the Paper in the name of the hon. Member (Mr. K. Jones), which avoids the ambiguous phrase "from the source"
Mr. KENNEDY JONES:
I beg to move, after the word "profit" ["to investigate prices, costs and profit"], to insert the words "at all stages"
The only desire I had in putting this down was that the Government in its investigation should be obliged to go back to the primary source and take it at all stages—manufacturing, distribution, and that sort of thing.
I beg to move, after the word "appear" ["require any person to appear"], to insert the words "or be represented"
I move this because of this fact, which might very well arise. You are going to have this central investigation by the Board of Trade. The Board of Trade may delegate the whole of its powers to local tribunals all over the country. You might find these tribunals might take an article which was manufactured at one central source, and go into the whole question of its composition, its cost, and the price at which it ought to be sold, and you might find very many of these committees asking the proprietor of the article to come and appear before them. Take the case of a friend of mine—I hope I may call him a friend, because he has cost me more money than any other man I have known—Lord Leverhulme, who is the manufacturer of Sunlight soap and many other articles. There might be set up an investigation by a local committee as to whether the prices at which Sunlight soap or any of these other commodities were sold were fair prices or showed an unreasonable profit. Under the Clause as it stands, they might ask him to appear before them. It would be a very onerous thing if Lord Leverhulme had to go from one local committee to another all over the country. My Amendment would permit of the unfortunate manufacturer being represented and not being compelled to travel from Plymouth to Bristol, from Bristol to Glasgow, from Glasgow to Edinburgh, and so on, all over the country.
The effect of this Amendment, if adopted, would not, I think, be what the hon. Member means. As the Clause stands, it does not require a person to appear before the persons who are conducting the investigation. It simply gives power to the Board of Trade to require the attendance of a particular person. The power is given to the Board of Trade to investigate prices, costs, and profit, and, for that purpose, by Order, they may require any person to appear before them. It is quite true that in a later part of the Bill, if those powers are delegated to a local committee, the local committee will have the power which the Board of Trade would otherwise have. The power in the Bill is the power to require the attendance of a particular person. Neither the Board of Trade nor the committee is bound to require the attendance of a particular person. It is merely the power in a proper case to require attendance. If the Amendment were carried it would have this effect, that in no case would the Board of Trade or the committee have power to require a particular person to attend. It would always be open to that particular person to say, "No; I am not going to attend; I am going to send someone to represent me" We must assume that the Board of Trade in this matter and the committee will act reasonably. It would be a great mistake if this Amendment were to be carried so as to deprive the Board of Trade or the committee of any power to require the attendance of a particular person. Hardships can be imagined. A very busy and very prominent manufacturer might be dragged from one part of the country to another at the caprice of some committee in order to give evidence which other persons might equally well give. That is an imagination which I hope the Committee will not take seriously. The mischief of this Amendment is that, if it were adopted, it would place the Board of Trade and the Committee in a condition of powerless-ness when it was essential in the public interest that a particular person should attend to give evidence.
The explanation given by the Attorney-General appears to me to considerably cut down the intention of this phrase. When I read it I understood that it would give the Board of Trade power to require a company or a syndicate to appear before them by their proper officer, and I was encouraged to believe that that was the meaning by the curious drafting of Sub-section (4), in which it says
where a person convicted under this Section is a company—
such-and-such an event may follow. Presumably the word "person," in Subsection (a), includes a company. But the explanation now appears to limit it to an individual person. [SIR G. HEWART indicated dissent.] The Attorney-General shakes his head, but I understood that that was what he meant.
Not at all. The illustration I took was the illustration of an individual. A company is an artificial person.
If the Attorney-General agrees that a person in this Sub-section also includes a company, I do not quite understand the drift of his argument that a company may not be represented. I should have thought it was essential that a company should be represented, otherwise it appears to me, quite apart from any general Statute, which I do not remember at the moment, that a company can hardly appear by any person but the secretary, who in many of these great rings or trusts is a person who has no knowledge of the matter he may be called upon to disclose. He has not the custody of books or documents. The real person to be got at is the board of directors. It would be much more beneficial that the company should be entitled to be represented by some person who can produce, as the representative of the directors or the syndicate, the real information that the Board of Trade desires to get. I should have thought it would enlarge the scope of the Sub-section if power was given to a person, when he was a company, to be represented instead of appearing possibly through a quite ignorant and useless secretary.
Surely the Board of Trade, having the right to call any person, if they desire to go into the affairs of a company, will send for that person connected with the company—the chairman or the managing director—whose attendance they may desire, and not the secretary?
If it is impossible for the Government to accept this Amendment, would they insert some words which would carry out the intention of the Attorney-General? He said it must be assumed that the Board of Trade will not act unreasonably. I am not sure that that is not a strong assumption. As there is a good deal in the Bill about reasonableness, why not apply it to the Board of Trade and put in words that such powers shall not be exercised unreasonably? That would give the Board of Trade power to call any person, and it would to some extent meet my hon. Friend who moved this Amendment by preventing that power being exercised unreasonably.
The discussion which has preceded this Amendment shows how extraordinarily difficult a Bill this is to amend in order to meet the wishes of the Committee. I make this suggestion for the consideration of my right hon. Friend. It is quite apparent that this Bill can only be made reasonably workable by the Regulations which the Government are bound to issue. Those Regulations we shall not see. They will not have time to issue them before the House rises. Will my right hon. Friend give this undertaking, that in the Regulations which he proposes to issue, and which he must issue, he will cover the point now made, which is of very considerable substance, so that it will not be in the power of any official or body operating under this Bill through Regulations to act unreasonably, as many of them have done in the past, and may do again?
Are we not to have the courtesy of a reply? I think the only point taken by the Attorney-General on this matter was a pure technicality, and speaking as a humble lawyer to a very great lawyer, I say that it is a technicality of questionable validity. The option he puts forward is the option to the person who is to be summoned to appear either by himself or by his representative. The option which my hon. Friend suggests is the option of the Board of Trade to summon a person or, if they think fit, to summon his representative. I fail to see why the ingenuity of the Attorney-General cannot rise to the occasion and frame some comparatively simple words which will meet the very serious point which has been raised without in the least tying the hands of the Board of Trade, and making it clear that they will have the option and not the person summoned. If the House continues to be treated on an important Bill in the manner it is being treated now, and if the Leader of the Opposition, who, whatever may be its sins, commands the esteem of the whole House, is not to be vouchsafed the courtesy of a reply on a matter of substance, we shall have to seriously consider our attitude on this Bill, which so far has received kindly treatment.
I hope the Attorney-General will not give any such undertaking as that asked for by the Leader of the Opposition. This investigation involves very delicate procedure, and if the President of the Board of Trade is to deal with it effectively he must be allowed to call such persons as he wants. It does not effect the same purpose at all when you do not get the man you want but you only get his representative. He may be represented by his solicitor or counsel. The right hon. Gentleman must be entrusted with sufficient discretion to enable him to judge who is the proper person to give him the best evidence on any particular point connected with profiteering. I hope, therefore, that the undertaking asked for will not be given, and that the Government will stick to the Clause as it stands.
I am sorry not to agree with my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Shaw), who says that the point I raised was a technicality. I am not going to reargue the matter. My right hon. Friend (Sir D. Maclean) is well aware that it was from no lack of courtesy that I did not rise at once to answer him. What we did was to nod and to acquiesce. We shall be most happy in the Regulations which have to be framed to make it quite clear that persons may be represented by counsel or by solicitor, but not to deprive either the Board of Trade or the local committees of the power to require the-attendance of any particular person. As-to the suggestion that there should be some regulation that local committees are not to act unreasonably, a regulation of that kind is out of the question, and I do not think my right hon. Friend did suggest-that.
The House always follows with interest the speeches and gestures of the Attorney-General, but I must con-fess that I did not notice the nod, and in the general interests of the Committee I. think it would have been better if he had put the nod into language.
I beg to move, in paragraph (a), to leave out the word "and" ["before them, and"], and to insert instead thereof the word "or"
As the first paragraph of this Clause, stands there will apparently be no power to the Board of Trade to obtain information for the purpose of its investigations except by calling people in person. There is no power for them to get, for instance, a census of production bearing on cost of production, and they would never be able to carry out exactly the procedure laid down in Sub-section (a). The simplest way to put that right would be to enable them to write letters to people for information and to save people the inconvenience of an interview, or perhaps with the object of appealing to a wider circle of producers for information than can possibly be done by a personal interview, the simplest thing to do is to put in the words "and/or" I understand, however, that it is not considered good drafting in an Act of Parliament to use the expression "and/or" Therefore, I ask the Attorney-General whether he could not deal with this matter in some other way. Of course, the Bill is not particularly well drafted, and it is very difficult for us to put it straight. If my Amendment is carried, then they could call people to appear before them, but there would not be any specific power to ask them for information after they had appeared. Therefore, I would prefer to deal with it in some way equivalent.
I think always in Acts of Parliament the word "and" includes the word "or," not necessarily that they must do both, but that they may do-one or the other or both.
I think that that is Undoubtedly so. If the hon. and gallant Member would read the words of the Clause he would see that what is provided is that the Board of Trade shall have power to investigate prices and so on, and for that purpose to require any person to appear before them and to furnish such information and produce such documents as they may require. But that does not mean that this is a condition precedent to obtaining information. They may require, the person to appear or they may require him to furnish or to do both.
Mr. T. THOMSON:
I beg to move, at the end of paragraph (a), to insert the words
on any such hearing they may by Order (i) declare the price which would yield a reasonable profit; or (ii) fix maximum wholesale and retail prices and
As the Bill' stands it is only when and after complaint has been made that the Board can declare prices. That is in (i) ct paragraph (b). The Amendment proposes instead of having the invidious distinction of an individual making a complaint, the Board itself, after investigation on its own account, shall be able to fix prices. The second point of the Amendment, and the larger one, is that, after the investigations have been made by the Board, something is to result from them, and I would suggest that one of those results would be that they should have the power of fixing maximum wholesale and retail prices, though we all know that in some cases when you fix a maximum price it becomes the minimum.
So far as the sense and desire of the Amendment are concerned I am perfectly prepared to accept it if it is pressed. The actual wording which would be required, however, would not be "on any such hearing, "but" on any such investigation, "because it may be an investigation of chartered accountants, or something of that sort. I am not quite clear as to what is the advantage of (i) as distinct from (ii). It seems to me to be an alternative given without resulting in benefit from the point of view of anybody, and it adds to the complexity of the measure. But as to the general principle involved I am quite prepared to agree, if my hon. Friend would find words to amend this later.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman to say that he accepts the spirit of this Amendment. This seems to me to be the most important consideration that has come before the Committee this afternoon. As the Bill stands at present there are two investigations. Under (a) the investigation is a perfectly barren, investigation All sorts of facts and figures will be accumulated by the Board, and they have no power to do anything in consequence. But now I understand the President of the Board of Trade to say that he is prepared to accept words which will make it at all events possible for—and I should like to make it incumbent upon—the Board of Trade, having accumulated those facts and figures, to give some guidance to the trading community upon which they may act, because this seems to me to be at the basis of the objections to the Bill. The Board may, according to this Clause, on the second investigation—that is, an investigation of complaints—do a number of things, but on the first investigation it can do nothing. It is most important that the principle of this Amendment should be accepted, because then the shopkeepers of this country, who are very perturbed at the proposed operation of this Bill, will have something to go on. As the Bill stands, without the fixing of maximum and minimum, prices, or some fixing of the reasonable) prices, every single shopkeeper is gambling on a prosecution upon some complaint which may be made on every sale that he makes.
The real object of this Amendment is simply to amend the worst-drafted Bill which it has ever been my misfortune to read, and to fix some price so that the shopkeeper may know what standard he has got to live up to or live down to. If he does not know this, it simply means that the shopkeeper is liable to be prosecuted and to have to come before a tribunal, very likely a tribunal consisting largely of his trade rivals, and to take his chance of being convicted on a standard which will vary in every locality. It will, perhaps, be more in order to discuss that matter when the particular words of the penal Clause are reached, and I only draw attention to it now so that if the Board of Trade will do what I know they are anxious to do—co-operate with the shopkeepers of this country—and after making this investigation from top to bottom, not only of the little retail shopkeeper but of all trusts and combines, big and little, they; will then fix a standard. I know the objection to fixing maximum prices—that they become minimum prices—but it is a great deal better to have some price, even if it is a little too high, so that both purchaser and seller may know what price may not be exceeded. Under the Bill as it stands any shopkeeper can be haled up on the complaint or any customer, perhaps a customer who is annoyed at not getting credit, or is an emissary of a rival shopkeeper, or is a non-successful trade rival, and may be brought before the local committee, consisting very largely of his trade rivals perhaps, or a bench of magistrates also consisting very largely of his trade rivals, and consequently shopkeepers—I have had numberless letters from them—are genuinely afraid, unless the Amendment of my hon. Friend is accepted, in which case the Board of Trade can give guidance not only to the public but to the shopkeepers, and then the shopkeepers will know the sort or standard to which they are expected to conform.
I must confess that I am absolutely at sea now as to what is the policy of the Government. If my right hon. Friend gets up to say that he accepts the principle of this Amendment, then it appears to me that the whole basis and structure of this Bill absolutely disappears. Just consider what this Amendment is going to do! You are going to have an investigation at large. It is to be an investigation in secret, which will be carried on not only by the Board of Trade but by every committee' all over the country. They are to be charged with the power of secret investigation into the whole trade of the country, at any rate with respect to a large number of articles of a most important-character. As the result of that they are to be allowed to make orders—every committee all over the country—after a secret Star Chamber inquiry, not only fixing the maximum price, which is a terrific power to give, but to say with reference to every article—every single article—what is a reasonable price, and if any one refuses to obey the Order or neglects to obey the Order he may be haled before a Court of Summary Jurisdiction, and the only question that would be tried will be whether in fact he has obeyed the Order, and he may be sentenced to six months' imprisonment. I cannot conceive a Government committing itself to such a proposition as that. I am sure that my right hon. Friend must have accepted the Amendment by in- advertence If he does, I can only say that no House of Commons that respects itself can possibly accept this Amendment that revolutionises the position and puts the whole trade of the country under the absolute autocratic domination of a number of committees extending all over the country, consisting of I do not know whom, with power to regulate the whole trade of the country in all these important matters. And this is the Government which requires an increase of production! Why, there cannot be a more fatal step. I really hope that my right hon. Friend was not in earnest when he said that he would accept the Amendment. As far as I am concerned I shall certainly vote against it.
There are one or two other points on the question of prices. Everyone is aware that the fixing of prices in the past has been followed immediately by a shortage of goods. I will tell the Committee why this occurs in many cases. Let us assume that a commodity can be brought from abroad for £ 45 a ton, and that a Government Department fix the price at £ 50 a ton for a merchant to sell to a manufacturer. Suddenly, as a result of world demand, the price of that commodity abroad goes up to £ 50 a ton. That is entirely beyond our control, because we have to buy in the world markets against every other nation. The merchant here ceases to buy at £50, because he has to "sell at the same price. The Government Department concerned then has to fix a new and higher price, which after payment of expenses would be a loss to him. In practice it has taken the Ministry of Food six weeks to make a new Statutory Order. During that period of six weeks the commodity does not come into the country and there is a shortage. If we are to have local committees all over the country doing this sort of thing, and we have to wait for them to alter prices, we shall have shortages of different articles all over the country. The arguments I have used are equally important in regard to a falling price Let us remember that prices are going to fall as world's production increases. I will take the same example of a commodity bought abroad for £ 45 a ton, with a fixed price here of £ 50. If the world's price fell to £40 it would take six weeks to alter the statutory price to the merchant, and during those six weeks he would be making enormous and unnecessary profits. Another difficulty about fixing prices is this, that some manufacturers. can work much more economically than others. Those with up-to-date methods and large businesses can do much better than those with less modern methods. The Food Controller gave a most striking example last week to the Select Committee concerning a most important necessary of life. He said that some bakers could turn a sack of flour into bread for less than 10s, and that others required 30s to 35s. The Ministry of Food fixed the price at 23s per sack. Suppose you fix prices, and a man can manufacture cheaply. Surely he will still be making an unreasonably large profit? Therefore you are not really getting any further forward by fixing prices. I hope we shall have some further explanation from the Government before the House goes to a Vote.
I think that the Committee have become somewhat involved over this matter, and that we have not been really helped by the contribution of the Noble Lord (Lord R. Cecil).I do not think it is a material argument to say that the acceptance of this Amendment is changing the form which the Bill took originally. The Bill has left much either to the imagination or to regulation. If the Bill, as originally drafted, had set out what are the articles to which the Bill is, to apply, what are the powers which it is intended to devolve upon the local committees., what is the constitution of the local committees, and what are the principles upon which those local committees are to act, then I think we should all be in a much easier position in discussing the Amendments, because the general vagueness of the Bill lands us in this position, that on practically every Amendment that is moved one is driven into a Second Reading Debate on the merits and demerits of the Bill. I shall try to be as brief as I can, but I want to bring the Committee back to the Amendment which has been moved and the Section upon which it is moved. The first Section deals with powers which are to be given to the Board of Trade. Let us eliminate for the moment the question of the devolution of those powers to local committees or local authorities. As I understand this Amendment, it is proposed to add to those powers the alternative of fixing maximum wholesale or reail prices. I am perfectly certain, for the reasons given on Second Reading, that if you were to have this control at all, the control at the centre has to go on concurrently, and that it is only from tile centre that you will be able to control the price in the earlier stages, from the importation to this country to the selling to the retailer, or from the first stages of manufacture, to the time when the goods reach the retailer. Assume that some of these powers are going to be devolved upon local authorities. I have an Amendment later which asks the Board of Trade to specify what the powers are which are to be devolved upon local authorities. The one power which, without question, is going to be devolved upon local committees is to decide what is or what is not a reasonable price for a retailer to charge If a local committee has a case brought before it, what, as a matter of fact, is it going to do? It is going to decide what is a reasonable price, and it will not decide it in each case on the circumstances of each particular case because, if it did that, you would have a million committees sitting for a million days. I do not believe any committee would accept that responsibility even if you gave them that responsibility in name.
What they will do is this: The first case will be brought before the local committee, and we will say it is a case relating to a pair of boots. What the local committee will, in fact, do will be to give a general decision as to what is a fair price for a pair of boots; and I am perfectly certain that the average local committee, when the next case of the kind comes up, will say, "We had boots up only yesterday. This is exactly the same kind of boot, and a fair price is so much" If that is the way in which local committees arc going to work, is it not much better to give them a general power of fixing the general retail price of any articles with which they have to deal? I hope that we shall not become unnecessarily tangled in this, and that in the desire to make the Bill as perfectas possible we shall not make it so perfect that no local authority will be able to work it.
I want to join in pointing out the real danger which may arise if we attempt to settle maximum prices. We must rely on foreign supplies for a large portion of our food. It is an international market. If we fix prices here which cannot be altered quickly, and other nations are willing to pay a considerably higher rate than our fixed price, it will end in our getting no goods at all. I am not connected with food importation, but I remember the case being mentioned to the House some time back of the article cocoa. It was very necessary then to get a large quantity into the country, but the Food Controller had to fix such a maximum price for this country that for the time being no cocoa came here at all; every importer could get a very much higher price in Marseilles or elsewhere on the Continent than in London. If we are not careful, that is the sort of danger we are now going to run.
I am beginning to think that it does not make much difference what you put into this Bill, because, as has been said, we are getting thoroughly mixed up as to the intentions of the promoters and the meaning of Amendments. What is the meaning of the proposed Amendment and the acceptance of its principle by the Government 2 This is rank Socialism, and is a most muddled kind of Socialism. If we are going to have Socialism, let us have it on a basis which we can understand. I understand the theory of it; I have had it explained to me; but if we are going to have this kind of muddled Socialism for six months, and if we are going to have all sorts of things spatch-cocked into this Bill, then, I think the Committee should protest. It certainly lowers what little moral authority the Government have still left to them for dealing with these matters. What does the Department mean by suggesting that they are prepared to accept the principle of fixing maximum wholesale and retail prices? I do not know where the trading community will be, either wholesale or retail. "Wherever we go, whether in the City or in the parish, and wherever business and the ex change of commodities is carried on, we find everybody hampered already by a thousand and one regulations which are choking business, and here the Government comes along and accepts a proposal whereby a sub-committee may decide matters and may summon persons secretly before it, and if it so chooses delegate its powers to those who can also sit in secret in the little parishes and small places, for the areas are necessarily bound to be small. I give it up.
I have listened with great interest to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Noble Lord the Member for Hitchin (Lord R. Cecil), and also to the remarks we have just heard. I would really ask the Committee to look at the facts and not in any way to enter into strange matters, such as Star Chambers sitting in every parish to settle wholesale prices. The thing is grotesque. We are dealing here with powers which the Board of Trade may have conferred upon it. We did not include it in the Bill, because, although we recognised that it might be useful yet for a short period of six months, it would probably not count very much. Let us see what this means. The Board of Trade, after careful scientific investigation held in secret, discovers that there is reason to believe that there is a combination in restraint of trade, either intra-national or international. They see that there is evidently some big increase in the price of a particular article and that there is more investigation required. In the meantime, the community is being bled. In that case such a power of investigation, could not be delegated to anybody by the Board of Trade. You cannot start fixing prices until the facts from all sides are brought in. We are quite prepared to accept the principle of this Amendment, believing that there is an outside chance that the powers, even within the six months, might be useful. I did not accept the wording of the Amendment, that was quite clear; I said that if we were pressed we would accept the Amendment in a qualified form, because I do know there is a very considerable section of opinion in the House which believes that the possession of this power by the Board of Trade would be useful. I agree it might be useful once or twice in the course of the six months, but it does not form any main scheme in the general structure of the Bill. We cut it out before the Bill was introduced, but if the Committee desire to press it and see the usefulness of it and think it is desirable, we are not going to resist it.
Most of the criticism has been directed against this particular Amendment The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Peebles (Sir J). Maclean) has referred to it as "muddle-headed Socialism," but I see on the Order Paper, in the name of one of his colleagues, an Amendment which asks for the insertion, after the word "profit," of the words "to fix wholesale and retail prices." It has come out in the Debate that there are certain firms in the country which can manufacture, owing to the efficiency of their organisation, at a very much lower rate than other firms which are not so efficiently organised. Behind all this there is the fact that the price is going to be ruled by the man who is incompetently organised, and in that way you are placing upon this country and the consumers a tax which they have to pay over the counter, not for efficient but for inefficient organisation. I submit that that is one of the worst kinds of profiteering which you could have. In some parts of the country you have efficient organisation and up-to-date machinery which cheapens production, while other manufacturers are not so up-to-date or alive to the circumstances of the times and refuse to put in efficient plant which would enable them to produce in greater quantity, and because of those men you are going to tax all the consumers.
It is not. The ca' canny of which you accuse trade unionists is forced upon them by the very fact that you have that class of manufacturer who tries to get all he can out of the trade unionist and pay him the lowest wages for his work. That, however, is not in this Bill, although I would be quite prepared to discuss it with the hon. Member at any other time on a suitable Bill. "The fixing of a maximum price was foreshadowed by one of the Ministers during the Debate two days ago, when he said that they would have power to fix the standard of prices. I do not see, therefore, why the Government should be attacked because they accept this Amendment. If a standard price is going to be fixed, surely it is going to be a maximum unless you are going to graduate the price according to the methods of organisation of particular firms! If a business man in this House had two departments in his business, one of which was highly organised and capable of producing relatively very much greater quantities of au article than the other department, he would very soon as a business man eliminate the badly organised part and endeavour to bring it up to date. The Board of Trade, with the central control of fixing maximum prices, can say that those prices are going to be ruled, not by the inefficiently organised manufacturer, but by the up-to-date, well-organised manufacturer.
Now we are coming to it, protection for the men who are not well organised. Is not the rule of competition the survival of the fittest? [HON. MEMBERS: "What about the small men?"]
Those are of the same order as the old women we hear so much about in other matters. If you have a, well-organised country, you are going to have production increased. You cannot have it increased by bad methods of organisation and if the fixing of prices is regulated by the inefficiently organised. There is no man more willing or prepared than I am to go out to the people and advocate increased production on the part of the working men, but I want to see the working man get his share of the increased production before I do so. I want to suggest that as a nation we should conduct our affairs in the same way that a business man, and an up-to-date business man, would conduct his business. The Noble Lord the Member for Hitchinshakes his head. Does he disagree?
He thinks that this nation should not be conducted on business lines?
I want to humanlselabour and industry, and not to throw it back on to a mere cash basis.
But the best business is that which is organised on the humane basis. We want to organise the nation so that the best and most up-to-date methods of production will be used, the most efficient methods, and those can and will be used by the Board of Trade or the Government taking control of industry in this country and fixing the maximum prices.
I am sure the House has listened with great interest, as will no doubt the country, to the views which have been expressed by the hon. Member as to the fixing of standards of price according to what is possible to the large trusts, involving, as it would, the snuffing out of the small businesses and the small shop people. That is a matter, however, which is hardly raised on this Amendment, and I propose to devote myself to the particular question before
the Committee. The last speech of the President of the Board of Trade shows that he is rather running away from his previous readiness to accept the fixation of prices. I would appeal to him to leave this matter to the House, to go further than this particular Amendment is apparently designed to go, to put his whole trust in the fixation of prices, to fix prices where there is speculation, and to throw aside altogether the Star Chamber methods which are proposed under paragraph (b) of this Clause. The particular form of words which my hon. Friends opposite have moved is not apparently acceptable to the Government, so I would venture to draw their attention to the words of which I have given notice in substitution of paragraph (b), with a slight modification, namely,
to publish Orders specifying maximum prices, chargeable at all stages of production, distribution, and sale, for food, clothing, boots, and household necessities in those cases where they have reason to believe that speculation is being carried on
I think it is necessary to define the commodities where these provisions will apply, because as the Bill is drawn it would only apply to-non-controlled articles, under Clause 1. Sub-section (5). Of course, if we are going to control prices, that makes that system no longer work, and therefore we must specify the articles to which this control of prices would apply. To my mind, the object of fixing these maximum prices is that then you could punish people for definite crimes, and you would not, as is now proposed under the Bill, punish them for what is merely a matter of opinion on the part of a local committee or of a bench of magistrates. The objection to maximum prices, I think, applies equally to the whole procedure of the Bill. We were told to-day that maximum prices tend to become fixed. Surely any authorised price, to some extent, tends to become fixed, and the difference is that, if you fix the prices for the whole country, they are a maximum, whereas, if a price comes before a local tribunal and is considered reasonable, that price is going to become a minimum, and it is going equally to operate as a flat price, if not throughout the whole country, anyhow through a large district. Therefore, it is fair to say that, in view of this power of hearing cases and fixing prices which are reasonable in certain conditions, the whole principle of fixing prices is inherent in the Bill as it
is drafted. I feel that, as this principle cannot be escaped, it is much better to deal with it systematically instead of piecemeal. The hon. Member for Derbyshire (Mr. Holmes) told us on this Amendment that the objection to fixing prices was that you would decrease production. That same objection was urged to-day in a communiqué by Mr. Hoover, the American Food Controller, who points out that unless control is limited to cases of speculation it undoubtedly will decrease supply. Therefore, I think we should in our form of words limit the Board of Trade to those cases where primâ facie evidence has been brought forward that speculation is going on. Speculation can only take place where there is a shortage of supply, and those are the cases that we want to get at. I am afraid under the machinery of the Bill the speculator will not be touched at all, because he is not the retailer; he is a man much further back, and he will cover up his tracks in such a way that he will not be reached at all. You cannot get him by these Star Chamber methods. The only person you will hit, and him you will hit with great hardship and injustice, is the small shopkeeper, and I therefore ask the Government to take their courage in both hands, to accept the principle of fixing maximum prices, and to drop the objectionable Star Chamber methods which are proposed in paragraph (b)
I think it would be the general feeling of this Committee that this-subject, interesting as it is, has been sufficiently discussed, and I rise for the purpose of making clear the words which, if they are pressed by the Committee, but not otherwise, the Government are prepared to accept. Those words are, at the-end of paragraph (a), to insert "on any such investigation they may by Order fix maximum prices, and" But it will be for the Committee to determine entirely whether or not it is desirable that those words should be added.
May I ask whether the intention of the Government is to limit that power to the central authority?
We should have to deal with that matter, if the House desires these words to be inserted, when we come to deal with Clause 2, Sub-clause (1).
Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the price fixed is to apply to the whole of the City; for instance, in London, to Bond Street and to Hammersmith, or in Leeds to Boar Lane and to Armley? Is it to apply equally to the whole district?
I welcome the announcement of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. One of the reasons why I was not able to vote for the Second Reading of the Hill was because it did not contain power authorising the Board of Trade to fix maximum prices, and now I want to submit to my Noble Friend the Member for Hitchin, the hon. Member for East Derbyshire, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Peebles, that really they have got to accept the fixation of prices, and for this reason. The Bill is one to stop profiteering. Profiteering is selling goods at too high a price, and you stop that by saying they must sell them at a lower price. Therefore, the basis of the Bill is the fixation of prices, and you cannot get out of it. If you want to stop profiteering, you must fix prices. How do you fix them? One alternative is for the local committees to fix the prices in their own area, and by that method you get a certain amount of flexibility, but you will get enormous varieties, and you will get the grossest inequalities, which will not correspond to the facts in a particular district. There is this further point. After the prices are fixed by the local tribunals, in many cases appeals will be carried to the Appeal Tribunals, and therefore you will get set up in a haphazard, piecemeal, and very inefficient way the fixation of prices. Surely it is far better to take the bull by the horns! We have got to fix prices or we cannot put down profiteering. Then; is one point on which I do not agree with the President of the Board of Trade, who said that the only body to exercise this power was the Board itself. I think you must have rather more flexibility than that, for, after all, the evils of fixed prices are great, and the greatest of those is that you have to fix a price at such a figure as will allow the inefficient to live. I think you can meet that by a certain amount of delegation. I do not think all the localities ought to have power to fix prices, but I think that bodies like the Appeal Tribunals, who will not be many in number, and who will be appointed for large areas, might very well be given the power to fix prices, for they, after all, will have heard appeals from all the different localities in their areas. I welcome what my right hon., and learned Friend has just done. I think, with great respect, a good deal of the opposition with regard to the fixing of prices is due to a misunderstanding, and I do hope the Committee will sup port the Government.
I think a great deal of misunderstanding is due to the fact that an attempt is being made to fix prices-for articles produced on a large scale. There is a great deal to be said, I think, for the fixing of prices retail, but when it comes to the production of the great commodities in which we are interested, I have only to appeal, I am sure, to the common sense of any importer or any merchant to show how practically impossible it becomes. Take any commodity like cotton, wheat, oil, timber or pig-iron. How is it possible for the Board of Trade to fix a price for pig-iron to-day when it would not be the slightest possible use tomorrow? That is at the root of the difficulty. If the provision offered by the learned Attorney-General is limited to the distribution of articles retail, there should be no difficulty in the Committee accepting that. But once you get to the larger question, where our own larger markets are interested, it would be found impracticable.
I only want to utter one word of caution, if I may, with regard to this general question of fixing prices. I think the speech from the representative of the Labour party was sufficient to convince the Committee of the extreme danger. Here you are going to have pressure for a maximum which is only going to be regarded as satisfactory for the most efficient industries. That means that three-fourths of your industries are to be wiped out if you follow the advice of the hon. Gentleman. Would it not be possible for the Government, after investigation, to consider the possibility of fixing these prices in order to refer them to the local tribunals, and let the local tribunals give good reasons why they do not consider such a price is suitable for the locality; in other words, the fixed prices could be a guidance to the tribunals, and you could have that variation. I throw out that suggestion. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman could introduce it on Report, but the fact remains that if there is any general policy of fixing prices, as we have seen it during the last few years of control, it is going to have the opposite effect to that desired. We in this country are in the most convenient position of any country in Europe. Do not let us do anything by further control to limit our output and production at the moment it is required.
With all respect to my hon. and gallant Friend, I do not think the question is as between fixing prices on the one hand and the proposals of the Bill on the other. I want to emphasise the point made by my hon. and gallant Friend beside me, that whether you call it fixing prices in the Bill or not, the fact that you have investigation and all the machinery of the Bill, whether it works through the Board of Trade or tribunals, brings you to the same result, that in order to determine unreasonable profit you must decide what is reasonable profit, and, therefore, you must fix your prices. I hope the Government will stick to their determination to accept the Amendment, though I think it is a strange procedure to accept an Amendment which will entirely recast their Bill. While saying that, I hope that they will stick to their determination, and I am bound to say that I think the whole machinery of the Bill would have been much simplified by a one-Clause Bill which said that the Board of Trade should have power to fix maximum prices at all stages on whatever articles they thought necessary. That would have been a very much simpler method of procedure, and would have secured the real object we have at heart. As I say, I am quite in favour of the present position that the Government have taken. I am not clear, however—and I think the obscurity will become intensified—as to what the effect of accepting the Amendment, or the new form of words the learned Attorney-General suggests, will be upon the remaining structure of the Bill. That will have to be exploited later on.
I am bound to say I listened with some astonishment to the turn this Debate has taken. On the early stages we were told that the process of investigation was really to be confined to the Board of Trade and, after making a general investigation, certain other proceedings might be taken in consequence of what they found in the course of their confidential investigation, and that profiteers, if found out, might be brought to justice, and, if found guilty, punished, and made to disgorge their profits. That was the scheme as it originally stood. Since then it has developed into an entirely different Bill. It is now a Bill to enable the Board of Trade to investigate, and, if they find it necessary, to fix prices. I do not say whether that is good or ill, but it is not the Bill as it first came before this House, and I must say I rather agree with my Noble Friend that it is a rather dangerous experiment. We have had the fixing of prices before by the Food Controller, and stocks were he13 up, and people could not get the things they wanted at any price. If you are to try this on a larger scale in regard to all commodities, you will get yourself, in my opinion, into a hopeless tangle, and it seems to me all trades will be strangled. We shall not be able to get food or any other commodities we want, and I do not know where it is going to lead. I look upon it with the gravest doubt and suspicion, and I do prefer the Bill as it originally stood. If this Amendment is adopted by the Government, and they persevere in the course, which I think most unwise, the best thing is to abandon the rest of the Bill. There is no reason to go any further. I say that it is the logical thins to do. I think they have got themselves into a hopeless tangle, and the sooner they get out of it the better.
I do not agree that the Government have got themselves into a hopeless tangle, but, in so far as it exists, I think it is due to a general misapprehension as to the proposal my right hon. Friend made. In the first place, if the House is ready, I say now, on behalf of the Government, we will gladly accept the proposal of my hon. Friend to have a one-clause Bill to enable the Board of Trade to do what it likes—[HON. MEMBERS: "Agreed!"]—but I am afraid the House would hardly be prepared to agree to that. Let me try, if I can, to show exactly what the Government mean by the suggestion of my right hon. Friend. It was discussed by us whether or not we should put these powers in the Bill originally, but there was never any question whatever in the mind of the Government as to whether we should aim at getting the object we desire by fixing the maximum prices. We came to the conclusion, whether right or wrong—and this is the foundation of it all—that the attempt to fix general maxi- mum prices would fail, and the result would be all over the country that you would simply stop supplies. That, therefore, is not the proposal of the Government, and if, as I hope, the House will now be ready to go to a Division on it, it must be clearly understood by those who vote for the Amendment in the form my right hon. Friend has put it—and, remember, the House only agreed to accept the principle of free voting if it were adopted in words which satisfied us—if this Amendment is adopted by the House, it does not mean that there will be any widespread attempt at all to fix maximum prices.
They have not even the power. It precisely excludes the power to fix prices by anyone except the Board of Trade, and the only object, I agree, is that given by my right hon. Friend. It should be clearly understood that the Board of Trade is not bound to exercise these powers. I think it is, perhaps, worth putting in, and for this reason. We all know there are certain commodities which are in the hands of so few people that they do regulate not only the wholesale price but they fix the price at which retailers are entitled to sell. It is only with those and analogous conditions that the Board of Trade will exercise these powers, if they are given to them by the House. The real fact is, we do not attach much importance to them, but we think they may be of some little value, and if the Committee is willing, we are ready to leave it to the decision of the Committee, having heard the arguments on both sides. But do not let there be any mistake. The adoption of this Amendment docs not in the least mean that this Bill is an attempt to fix maximum prices all over the country.
Absolutely; and we will make it plain in subsequent Clauses of the Bill. It would be going against the whole principle on which we have adopted this Bill.
I think it would be for the convenience of the Committee if I were to know whether the Mover of the Amendment would be willing to withdraw it, and substitute the words suggested by the Government.
To save misunderstanding, I will say the Government must resist that Amendment.
That really is not so. It is obvious that if an attempt were made to do this on any wide scale, more than the six months would have elapsed.
I hope this Amendment will not be carried. It is quite true that the Leader of the House said the Government did not intend to use it in the way suggested, but it does give the power to fix prices. It would be a very dangerous thing, and I do hope we are not going to hamper the production of the country by such a suggestion as the possibility of this. The great trouble of trade and agriculture in the country at the present time is Government interference and Government Regulations. We want as little as possible of that, and anything that tended to increase Government rule and Government Regulations on the production of this country would be a most distinct and dangerous evil. It is true this Amendment is only the small end of the wedge. At the same time, it is not the original principle of the Bill, and, as the Government do not think it important, I hope their supporters will reject the Amendment.
The Committee can either accept an Amendment of this character or prepare itself for a continual demand on the part of labour for increased wages. Because, as has already been hinted to-night, there are in this country, as in all other countries, speculators, and the speculator is the chief sinner. But, whenever the speculator has taken advantage of the state of the market to raise his prices, then those prices are followed by the men, firms, companies, and combines! who probably would not have proceeded on this line if they had not been led along it; and so prices go on soaring. It has been said by the last speaker that by the method suggested you are going to limit production. It has been said by another speaker that if you attempt to do anything of the kind suggested in the Bill that stocks will be held up, production will be limited, and men will not attempt to sell. A more serious indictment against the manufacturers of this country could not be made. What would hon. Members think if the miners came down next week and said, "Because we cannot get exactly the prices and the conditions that we are demanding we will hold things up?"
Precisely. But when that was being done they met with the unstinted and wholesale condemnation and anathemas of hon. Members on the opposite side of the House. The people who constantly condemn the miner and anathematise him now propose themselves to turn and practice the same offences which they have been condemning in the miner. I say again, a more serious indictment has never been levelled against—[HON. MEMBERS: "Who?"]—against yourselves! An hon. Gentleman on my left said that stocks would be withheld. I was sorry to hear even the Leader of the House concur in that statement.
If the right hon Gentleman will examine the report of his speech in the morning, he will see what he said. [Laughter.] I do not think there is any innuendo in what I have said in my reference to the Leader of the House. It has often been heard from the opposite side that one of the necessities of the moment is cheap production, that international trade is being killed owing to high prices, and that we will be absolutely swept out of the neutral markets because of the alarming cost of production at the present moment. If that is true, and if wages have to rise proportionate- to the cost of living, then you must either stop the soaring of prices or wages will follow, and the cost of production will continue to increase. you, therefore, get that alternative.
So far as we are concerned, we think the wiser of the two alternatives presented is to make some honest attempt to fix prices. We are quite cognisant of this fact, that it will be impossible to fix all prices. I do not know—replying to the lion. Member near me—why I should be concerned about a maximum price for pig-iron [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]
You may be. I do not understand it, and I am not going to speak about that which I do not under stand. I would argue for the fixing of maximum prices for those commodities which I do understand something of, and which the working classes of this country have to purchase from day to day and from week to week. These are things which undoubtedly are causing serious un rest. Of the two alternatives the better is the fixing of these prices, as I have already stated. The Noble Lord opposite is a man who when he speaks undoubtedly gains attention and the warm appreciation of hon. Members on these benches. But I listened to him to-night with some degree of apprehension, and I may say dissatisfaction. Why? I can understand the Noble Lord's position, and I can understand that of any other hon. Member who says, "I am totally opposed to any such fixing of prices" But I cannot understand any hon. Member saying, "I only object"—and this is the implication of the objection of the Noble Lord—I only object to fixing maximum prices when you are seeking to deal with the wholesaler—
I am sorry to interrupt, but may I say that the only thing that attracts me to this Amendment is the speech of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who explained very carefully that he only agreed with the Amendment because he disagreed with the arguments of those who opposed it, and on the ground that it hit the rings, and trusts, and the big people. If I was quite sure that that really was the useful effect of this Amendment, or even the possible;effect of it, I myself should be rather disposed to support it. But that is just my I whole criticism of this Bill—though I am I glad to support it as better than nothing—it does hit the small man and does not j hit the big one.
I understood the Noble Lord in speaking to be alarmed by this fact: that right throughout the country we are going to set up committees—in quisitions—to investigate documents and ' the whole of the facts of the case, and then we are going to invest them with the right to fix maximum prices. The Noble Lord objects?
If the Noble Lord does, lie must of necessity object in Committee to the fixing of maximum prices at any stage, whether in relation to the retailer or the wholesaler. He cannot have it both ways. If he objects to the investigation and examination of the whole of the case and then to the fixing of maximum prices, if he is going to be logical he must object so far as the retailer and everyone else is concerned. I can assure the Noble Lord if he only objects when it comes to the wholesaler—
What is the use of attempting to fix maximum prices in relation to the small retailer and to invest certain committees with certain powers? I understand there are two kinds of committees to be set up. There is the local committee which is going to investigate the facts in relation to complaints that may have been lodged. They are to have the right to do two or three things. They
are to have the right of investigating complaints, of fixing maximum prices, and to make the man who has made an exorbitant profit disgorge his ill-gotten gains, or take him before a Court of Summary Jurisdiction. The other committee is going to investigate the larger cases, but is absolutely destitute of any power to deal with those who have been making the larger profits. What is the use of a committee of investigation unless they are to be invested with the same power to deal with those whom they believe guilty of extraordinary profiteering? For these various reasons I am going to support the Amendment.
May I suggest to the Committee that this has now been very well discussed, and that we might come to a decision?
Sir H. COWAN:
I hope the House will not give the Board of Trade these autocratic powers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Divide!"] If they are exercised with a view to fixing prices in such a way as to yield sufficient profit to the larger trader and the larger producer, they will crush out of existence hundreds of thousands of small traders, which I think cannot be the object of the Government. On the other hand, if prices are to be put at such a figure as will give an adequate profit to the small trader, then the large trader will continue to profiteer, and to profiteer under the sanction of the Bill. That cannot possibly be the intention of the Government or of the House. The Government have left the vote to the free decision of the House, and I hope the House will reject this Amendment.
|Division No. 97.]||AYES||[7.57 p.m.|
|Acland, Rt. Hon. Francis Dyke||Carter, R. A. D. (Manchester)||Farquharson, Major A. C.|
|Agg-Gardner, sir James Tynte||Carter, W. (Mansfield)||Finney, Samuel|
|Astor, Major Hon. Waldorf||Casey, T. W.||Fisher, Rt. Hon. Herbert A. L.|
|Baird, John Lawrence||Cecil, Rt. Hon. Evelyn (Aston Manor)||FitzRoy, Capt. Hon. Edward A.|
|Barnett, Major Richard W.||Child, Brig.-Gen. Sir Hill||Gardiner, J. (Perth)|
|Bell, James (Ormskirk)||Conway, Sir W. Martin||Gilmour, Lieut.-Colonel John|
|Birchall, Major J. D.||Cowan, D. M. (Scottish Univ.)||Gray, Major E.|
|Bowerman, Rt. Hon. C. W.||Dalziel, Fir Davison (Brixton)||Greame, Major P. Lloyd-|
|Briant, F.||Davidson, Major-Gen. Sir John H.||Green, J F. (Leicester)|
|Bridgeman, William Clive||Davies, Alfred (Clitheroe)||Greenwood, Col. Sir Hamar|
|Britton, G. B.||Davies, Sir Joseph (Crewel)||Gregory, Holman|
|Broad, Thomas Tucker||Davison, J. E. (Smethwick)||Griffiths, T. (Pontypool)|
|Bromfield, W.||Dewhurst, Lieut.-Com. H.||Grundy, T. W.|
|Cairns, John||Doyle, N. Grattan||Guest, J. (Hemsworth, York)|
|Campbell, J. G. D.||Edge, Captain William||Guinness, Lt.-Col. Hon. W. E. (B. St. E)|
|Cape, Tom||Edwards, C. (Bedwelty)||Hall, F. (Yorks, Normanton)|
|Carew, Charles R S. (Tiverton)||Edwards, Major J. (Aberavon)||Harmsworth, Cecil B. (Luton, Beds.)|
|Hilder, Lieut.-Col. F.||Murray, William (Dumfries)||Spencer, George A.|
|Hills, Major J. W. (Durham)||Nail, Major Joseph||Stanier, Captain Sir Beville|
|Hirst, G. H.||Norris, Sir Henry G.||Stanley, Col. Hon. C. F. (Preston)|
|Hoare, Lt.-Col. Sir Samuel J. G.||Onions, Alfred||Stevens, Marshall|
|Holmes, J. S.||Parkinson, John Allen (Wigan)||Strauss, Edward Anthony|
|Howard, Major S. G.||Perkins, Walter Frank||Sugden, W. H.|
|Jesson, C.||Pollock, Sir Ernest Murray||Swan, J. E. C.|
|Jourell, N. P.||Pratt, John William||Taylor, J. (Dumbarton)|
|Johnson, L. S.||Prescott, Major W. H.||Thomas, Brig.-Gen. Sir O. (Anglesey)|
|Johnstone, J.||Pulley, Charles Thornton||Thomson, F. C. (Aberdeen, S.)|
|Jones, J. (Silvertown)||Raeburn, Sir William||Thomson, Sir W. Mitchell- (M'yhl)|
|Jones, J. Towyn (Carmarthen)||Raffan, Peter Wilson||Thorne, G. R. (Wolverhampton, E)|
|Kellaway, Frederick George||Raper, A. Baldwin||Thorne, Col. W. (Plaistow)|
|Kenworthy, Lieut.-Commander||Rees, Captain J. Tudor (Barnstaple)||Tickler, Thomas George|
|Kenyon, Barnet||Richardson, Ft. (Houghton)||Vickers, D.|
|Kidd, James||Roberts, F. O. (W. Bromwich)||Waish, S. (Ince, Lanes.)|
|King, Commander Douglas||Roberts, Rt. Hon. G. H. (Norwich)||Ward-Jackson, major C. L.|
|Lewis, Rt. Hon. J. H. (Univ., Wales)||Roundell, Lieut.-Colonel R. F.||Wignall, James|
|Lewis, T. A. (Pontypridd, Glam.)||Royce, William Stapleton||Wild, Sir Ernest Edward|
|Locker-Lampson, Com. O. (Hunt'don)||Samuel, A. M. (Farnham, Surrey)||Wilkie, Alexander|
|Loseby, Captain C. E.||Sanders, Colonel Robert Arthur||Williams. A. (Consett, Durham)|
|Lunn, William||Sexton, James||Wilson, W. T. (Westhoughton)|
|Maclean, Neil (Glasgow, Govan)||Shaw, Tom (Preston)||Wood, Major Hon. E. (Ripon)|
|McMicking, Major Gilbert||Shaw, Captain W. T. (Forfar)||Wood, Major Mackenzie (Aberdeen, C)|
|Mallalieu, Frederick William||Short, A. (Wednesbury)||Woolcock, W. J. U.|
|Mildmay, Col. Rt. Hon. Francis B.||Simm, Colonel M. T|
|Morgan, Major D. Watts||Smith, Capt. A. (Nelson and Colne)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—Mr.|
|Murray, Dr. D. (Western Isles)||Smith, W. (Wellingborough)||G. Barnes and Mr. T. Thomson.|
|Adair, Rear-Admiral||Du Pre, Colonel W. B.||Nield, Sir Herbert|
|Ainsworth, Captain C.||Flannery, Sir J. Fortescue||Oman, C. W. C.|
|Balfour, George (Hampstead)||Forestier-Walker, L.||Ormsby-Gore, Hon. William|
|Barnes, Rt. Hon. G. N. (Gorbals)||Foxcroft, Captain C.||Pennefather, De Fonblanque|
|Barnston, Major Harry||Gibbs, Colonel George Abraham||Perring, William George|
|Beauchamp, Sir Edward||Gilbert, James Daniel||Purchase, H. G.|
|Bell, Lieut.-Col. W. C. H. (Devizes)||Grant, James Augustus||Raw, H. Norman|
|Benn, Sir Arthur S. (Plymouth)||Griggs, Sir Peter||Ratcliffe, Henry Butler|
|Blair, Major Reginald||Gritten, W. G. Howard||Raw, Lieut.-Colonel Dr.|
|Bowyer, Capt. G. W. E.||Hailwood, A.||Remer, J. B.|
|Briggs, Harold||Henry, Denis S. (Londonderry, S.)||Richardson, Alex. (Gravesend)|
|Brown, Captain D. C. (Hexham)||Herbert. Denniss (Hertford)||Robinson, S. (Brecon and Radnor)|
|Brown, T. W. (Down, N.)||Hinds, John||Rogers, Sir Hallewell|
|Buckley, Lt.-Col. A.||Hurd, P. A.||Rowlands, James|
|Bull, Rt. Hon. Sir William James||Hurst, Major G. B.||Samuel, S. (Wandsworth, Putney)|
|Butcher, Sir J. G.||Jackson, Lieut.-Col. Hon. F. S. (York)||Seddon, J. A.|
|Campion, Col. W. R.||Jones, Wm. Kennedy (Hornsey)||Shaw, Hon. A. (Kilmarnock)|
|Carr, W. T.||Kelly, Major Fred (Rotherham)||Sprot. Colonel Sir Alexander|
|Cecil, Rt. Hon. Lord R. (Hitchin)||Kerr-Smiley, Major Peter Kerr||Stephenson, Colonel H. K.|
|Chadwick, R. Burton||Kiley, James Daniel||Stewart, Gershom|
|Clough, R.||Larmor, Sir J.||Talbot. Rt. Han. Lord E. (Chichester)|
|Cobb, Sir Cyril||Lister, Sir R. Ashton||Townley, Maximilan G.|
|Cockerill, Brig -General G. K.||Locker-Lampson, G. (Wood Green)||Tryon, Major George Clement|
|Colvin, Brig-Gen. R. B.||Lorden, John William||Ward, Colonel L. (Kingston-upon-Hull)|
|Cory, Sir Clifford John (St. Ives)||Lort-Williams, J.||Warner, Sir T. Courtenay T.|
|Cozens-Hardy, Hon. W. H.||M'Laren, R. (Lanark, N.)||Weston, Colonel John W.|
|Craig, Col. Sir James (Down, Mid.)||Macquisten, F. A.||Wheler, Colonel Granville C. H.|
|Craig, Lt.-Com. N. (Isle of Thanet)||Malone, Major P. (Tottenham, S.)||Yeo Sir Alfred William|
|Craik, Right Hon. Sir Henry||Marks, Sir George Croydon||Young, Sir F. W. (Swindon)|
|Davies, T. (Cirencester)||Mond, Rt. Hon. Sir Alfred Moritz|
|Davison, Sir W. H. (Kensington)||Morden, Col. H. Grant||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—Sir|
|Denison-Pender, John C.||Murray, Lt.-Col. Hon. A. C. (Aberdeen)||F. Lowe and Sir Henry Cowan.|
|Dennis, J. W.||Nicholson, W. (Petersfield)|
I beg to move, after the words last inserted, to add the words "in those cases where there is evidence of the existence of speculation"
We have heard from the Government that it is impracticable to fix prices in all cases, and we have had strong warning from Mr. Hoover in the newspapers to-day that attempts to control prices, otherwise than in the sense of controlling vicious speculation, can only result in a further curtail- ment of the commodities available. la view of that warning we shall be wise to limit controlled prices to bad cases, and to only the dangerous cases where speculation is going on.
I hope the Government will not accept these words, as this Amendment will vitiate the verdict of the House. The word "speculation" is a very vague term, and I regret that the hon. and gallant Member did not follow his prophet, Mr. Hoover, further and include the words "used in regard to restraint of trade" You leave out the man who holds back goods or corners them by this suggestion.
I think it is really undesirable to limit the powers which the Committee has just agreed to by such a term as ''speculation," and for once I agree with my hon. Friend opposite (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy). There, are things quite different to speculation which might have to be dealt with, and I can see no advantage to be gained from putting in these words, which I trust will not be pressed.
I hope the President of the Board of Trade will not shut his eyes altogether to this Amendment. The Government have stated that they do not propose to employ these powers except where there is something like a ring, or holding back, or speculation. I think it is very important not to give these vague and general powers to the Government. I am not speaking of this Government particularly, and let us hope that it will last for six months. It may be that the President, whose talents we all admire, may be sent off to something, quite different, and possibly he may be the First Lord of the Admiralty or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in that case we may have quite a different President, who may adopt the ruthless policy of the Labour party and fix prices so as to destroy all competition with the larger trusts. If these words are mot accepted, will my right hon. Friend assure us that on report he will consider whether some words cannot be inserted to limit these general powers I can assure my "right hon Friend that there is nothing the country is so sick and tired of as the policy of control. This is a Bill, with these powers in it, really to open the door, as far as this particular branch of the subject is concerned, to the full extent of the powers of the Defence of the Realm Act. It gives power to fix maximum prices and to control the whole trade of the country in these matters. I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to give us some undertaking that between this and the Report stage he will try and devise words which will assuage the anxiety we feel about possibilities of this kind and about precedents being established in such a light-hearted way by the present Government.
I think it would facilitate business very much if the right hon Gentleman would give some indication that he would endeavour to follow the course suggested by my Noble Friend (Lord R. Cecil). I think there is a little misunderstanding on the point. I am quite conscious, and I think everybody who voted for the last Amendment, except those who went into the Lobby by mistake, is quite aware that there is an objection to a general fixing of prices. There is no difference of opinion between the Committee and members of the Government on that point. All that we want to provide is that these powers should only apply where there is a primâ facie case of speculation, All I want to do is to make sure of doing what was the view of the Committee when it supported the last Amendment.
As far as the miners are concerned they did, at the beginning of the War, make an offer to the Government that if you keep prices where they are, we will never ask you for another penny. Immediately the War broke out the prices of things soared up, and, if this Amendment is carried, it will moan that there are certain firms making huge profits with whom the Government would have no power whatever to deal. I can give one case in point. A certain colliery company in my own county have declared a dividend of 35 percent., and out of the undivided profits have allotted two shares for every one held by the shareholders That is the sort of thing that is going on, and yet the general public are asked to pay to that company another 6s. per ton, though those dividends were realised without the additional price. Does not that call for some control, so that the poor may have a chance to live? These people are charging very enhanced prices, and no one can control them in any way. I trust that the Government will accept the Amendment as proposed.
I beg to move, to leave out paragraph (b).
The effect of this Amendment would be to leave out the very arbitrary powers which this Bill proposes to give to the local committees and to the local benches of magistrates, and it would cause the Government to rely on the checking of profiteering by the fixing of maximum prices. I believe that the effective way of getting rid of profiteering is to fix maximum prices right through, from the raw material down to the finished article and the retailer. I do not think that we shall solve these questions by calling up the small shopkeeper and accusing him of making inordinate profits. The tendency, in some cases, will be to increase the prices charged by people in a large way. They will see the small shopkeeper called up and convince the local tribunal that to enable him to carry on his business at all it is necessary, owing to the smallness of his business, that he should make a considerable profit, measured in percentages, on the single bargain. la it not very likely, when that becomes known, that there will be argued there from a justification for the same prices being charged by the big business with a large turnover? This piecemeal fixing of prices inferentially by the dismissal of cases by the local tribunals on the ground of reasonableness is about the worst form that you could possibly have, and, when coupled with it you have the arbitrary decisions which will have to be arrived at by benches of magistrates as to what is reasonable or unreasonable in the way of profit, I think the whole of the paragraph becomes so objectionable that the Government would be well advised to drop it.
I wish to support the Amendment largely on the same ground, strange as that may appear to some of my hon. Friends. This Bill is neither one thing nor the other. It is a hopeless compromise and a thoroughly bad one. The Government, in view of the world conditions, had before them two courses. One was the complete taking over and controlling of all sources of supply, production, distribution, and exchange—complete Socialism, if you like—and the other was the leaving of everything clear and free and allowing people to get into their stride again—the removal of all embargoes and allowing trade to flow freely. They are going to do neither. They are simply going to set one half of the country against the other half. They are going to have all this persecution, espionage, and conspiracy. They are not going to lower prices at all. They are simply going to harass the decent trader and make it difficult for young men coming back from the War to set up again in business. It is a big problem, and this Bill has been introduced with a parochial mind. It is devised to get at the small retailer and haberdasher. Those are not the people who are to blame at all. At the last minute, as the result of speeches in this House and Press agitation, the Government are pretending that they are going to get at the trusts. That was not the original intention. They are going to injure the country irretrievably by this Bill. That is why I voted against it on the Second Heading, and why I shall vote against it on the Third Reading, and for the same reason I shall support this Amendment.
I rise to support the Amendment, and I wish in all seriousness to bring the Committee back to the suggestion which was made by the Leader of the House. I sincerely believe, if we had a one-Clause Bill for the fixing of prices and left out all the rest, that the country would be much better off, prices would come down, and incidentally we should get to bed early. I do not think the Government realise the full effect of the Amendment which they have just accepted. You either fix prices by the decisions of local tribunals or by the decrees of the Board of Trade, and the Committee have approved of the second course. All the machinery for fixing prices exists. The Costings Department of the Ministry of Food has worked out fixed prices, and it would not be very difficult. It would be a great thing if we could sweep away all these tribunals which are bound to be extremely expensive and unpopular and which will not get the facts upon which the Board of Trade can act. The Board of Trade can get all their facts centrally. If they like to delegate the power, they can delegate it, but in that case it ought to be to large areas and not to small areas. I do ask the right hon. Gentleman, in all seriousness, to consider whether he cannot lighten the ship. I want to stop profiteering as much as any Member of this House, but I voted against the Second Reading of this Bill because, among other things, I was quite convinced that it would hit the small man and let the big man off. This in my conviction, but still the right hon. Gentleman met us so fairly on the last Amendment that I hope he will now go a step further and see the true indication of the Amendment just proposed. If he does that I believe we may get a good Bill, while proving that those of us who went into the Lobby against this measure will be shown to be in the right.
This Amendment, if it were carried, would entirely alter the whole procedure of the Bill, and, in my opinion, it would alter it very much for the worse. I am sure that the hon. and gallant Member who has just spoken does not even yet understand what the Bill is about.
I admit it is not easy to understand a Bill like this. The Bill originally drafted, which absolutely set out all the details, was a far bigger measure than the one now before the Committee. This Bill is an effort to get drafted in as short a space as possible a statement which will confer the powers necessary on the Board of Trade and on the Government. This particular Clause is absolutely vital to our conception of the machinery which it is necessary to use in order to cope with the evil of profiteering. We have at the present time operations which look like vast profiteering run on a wholesale scale, and this Bill is not merely intended to deal with the small man as has been suggested by the hon. Member for Hull, who, if he will do me the honour of looking at the evidence I gave before the Committee upstairs—
—the hon. Member will see that in a statement I made there I said that the Bill was based on the Report of the Committee on Trusts—
I have looked through the papers most carefully. I find no trace of any official document. All I can get is the "Times" report of the right lion Gentleman's evidence.
There is an Official Report of all evidence given before Select Committees.
The facts are quite plain. If this Bill had been designed as suggested, to deal solely with the small trader, it would not have been drafted in this way. But, in addition to dealing with big men, we do want to deal with small ones. There is very often in quite mean streets a great deal of profiteering. That is undoubted. There is no good m saying that a central Department sitting in London is going to deal with small cases of profiteering in things for which you cannot fix a price—small things in bulk individually, but serious in the aggregate. You might take villages and towns in all parts of the country. It is absolutely necessary, I feel sure, if the people of this country are going to be convinced that they are not being robbed by their shopkeepers, that we should have some legislation such as this. What we have to provide for these people is some place to which they can go and at which they can lodge a complaint, and, that having been done, we set up an investigation; and I hope we shall be able to satisfy them that they are not really defenceless before the operations of greedy people. That is an absolutely vital weapon for the Government of this country to possess during the time Parliament is not sitting, and that power is created and confirmed by this Clause here. This Sub-section, therefore, is an absolutely vital part of the procedure which, rightly or wrongly, the Government has come to believe is the right and proper procedure to deal with this evil, and I would, therefore, urge the Committee to let us have this Sub-section and to pass on to the consideration of other proposals in the Bill.
This is indeed a House of surprises, and one surprise to me has been the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Central Hull. I certainly never expected to hear a speech such as he has delivered to-night denouncing this Clause, because to my mind to eliminate the Clause would be to destroy all the value of the Bill. We must realise that if we are to attempt to deal with profiteering we have to begin somewhere. If I were convinced, as I am not, that this Bill vas intended and designed only to deal with the small shopkeeper in the mean streets, in the by-ways, or in the larger streets, I would be the first to deliver my vote against it, and to express with the utmost vehemence my protest against the injustice of the whole thing. But I am not convinced that that is the real object of it, because during the past year one has been able to gain some sort of experience and knowledge of the value of fixing prices and controlling them. Unless, you fix the price, and unless you investigate and inquire into the unfair prices that are being charged, there is no possible way of dealing with this evil. I had a wicked case of profiteering brought to my notice during the last week-end. A retailer in a, general way told me that he had a big sale of controlled boots issued at certain fixed prices, a good article, well made and suitable to the district, and retailed at the j price of 29s. The boots were made of controlled leather, purchased at prices fixed, and sold to the retailer at a figure which enabled him to retail them at 29s. He told me his firm had sold many hundreds of pairs, and had placed orders for many more hundreds of pairs of the same quality. But then the controlled price was taken off, and his order, as a result, was not supplied. When he did get some more boots of the same quality they had to be retailed at 32s. They were exactly the same boots, made of the same leather, and it was the taking off of the controlled I price which gave the profiteer his chance to compel the retailer to sell at an increased price, which, of course, the working classes had to pay. Under the powers of a Clause such as this you may, in the first place, have to deal with the retailer, but then you can trace the matter back until you get to the wholesaler or the manufacturer. During the War period, when controlled prices were put on and it was illegal to sell above those prices, I sat on the bench dealing with hundreds of cases. Many a time a small shopkeeper was brought up because he was selling above the fixed price, and by inquiring into the case we were able to find out where the shopkeeper bought his goods and at what prices they were supplied. In that way, what was a trivial case at the beginning assumed larger proportions, and we were able to get hold of the real villain of the play. I trust the Committee will not accept this Amendment, because to strike out this part of the Clause would be taking the very soul out of the Bill.
I agree fully with what has been said by the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down about the effect of taking off controlled prices. Immediately the price leaps up. It is because of that that several hon. Members sitting around me and myself voted for the last Amendment. We think a much more effective and simpler method of dealing with this problem would be the fixation of prices rather than the very complicated machinery set up in this paragraph. I am inclined to think that this part of the Clause will be in every case onerous and in many cases most unjust to tin; small men. Because of that I support the Amendment. The President of the Board of Trade turned to one of my hon. Friends and said, "You do not understand the Bill, even if you have read it" He then proceeded to say, "No doubt it is a difficult Bill to understand. This is only a short Bill. Originally the Government had a very long Bill, with all sorts of details in it," giving us to understand that if we had those details we should probably understand this Bill better. That is not the way to deal with this Committee. If in that Bill there are details which would enable us to understand a Sub-section of this kind, we ought to have that Bill. On a point of Order. I should like to ask your ruling, Sir, whether the President of the Board of Trade having alluded to another Bill, this Committed would not be justified in demanding that that Paper should be laid on the Table of the House?
The President of the Board of Trade said to nay hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Durham (Major Hills) that the original idea of the Government was to introduce a long Bill, and that that Bill was in existence with a number of details, without which it is practically impossible for many hon. Members, like myself, to understand what really is the Government machinery.
Do I understand the hon. Member was saying what the President of the Board of Trade said? Is it suggested that the President of the Board of Trade said that? [HON. MEMBERS. "Yes!"] And is it suggested that my right hon. Friend said that without that Bill this Bill could not be understood?
The President of the Board of Trade said that there was a long Bill with a great many details in it, and the only conclusion we could reasonably take upon that is that if we had the longer Bill we could understand this Bill better. I think this Committee ought to-have that Bill.
Is it not a Rule of the House that if Ministers refer to a document it is incumbent upon them to lay that document on the Table?
it is a question of interpretation of what the President of the Board of Trade said.
I am going to vote for this paragraph as it stands. The assumption held below the Gangway opposite is that the Board of Trade is likely to conduct a vigorous campaign against the small shopkeeper and leave the big man alone. My fear is that the Board of Trade will not; be half active enough, either against the large man or the small man. Certainly my fears do not run in the direction that either class of profiteers will be unduly harassed by the. Board of Trade. I shall vote for the paragraph because I see nothing in it which is at all unreasonable. We have first the statement that complaints are to be received and investigated, both as to wholesale and retail prices. I cannot see anything unreasonable in that. I do not see anything unreasonable in the statement that a price should be declared which would yield a reasonable profit. I do not see anything unreasonable in requiring a seller to repay to the complainant any amount which has been paid in excess of such price. Nor can I see anything unreasonable in the prevision that follows. This is the very soul of the Bill. You cannot fix prices, retail and wholesale, for everything—surely no man in this Committee claims that that is possible—but you can make provision that where complaints are made they shall be heard, whether on a large or small scale, and this part of the Clause gives that power. We have heard a great deal about the small trader being harassed. May I suggest that the worst of all profiteers can be found among the smallest traders, and that in the poorest localities there are small traders who are profiteers beside whom even shipping rings and the rest fade into insignificance? It is essential that power should be held by the Board of Trade to deal with men who trade on the very poorest of the poor. As I read the Clause, it gives power to the Board of Trade to deal with the big and small men alike; it gives no power that is unreasonable, and consequently I shall vote for it as it appears in the Bill.
I beg to move, in paragraph (b), after the word "complaints" ["to receive and investigate complaints"], to insert tins words "on oath."
Having had some experience in dealing with these cases in local Courts, one is bound to say that very often a good deal of perjury is committed, wilfully and deliberately, in order to deceive the Court and prevent it coming to a right decision. In order to deal with that matter, I move tins Amendment.
I hope my hon. Friend's view is a little pessimistic. I quite recognise that there may be cases in which it is desirable to have the protection of an oath, and I hope I shall be meeting what he really desires it at the end of Sub-section (5) I should be willing to move to insert some such words as these: "The Board of Trade shall have power to require any person appearing before them under this Act to give evidence on oath, and shall have power to authorise any person to administer an oath for that purpose."
Mr. KENNEDY JONES:
I do not, think that quite meets the point which is contained in the Amendment. As I take it the hon. Member (Sir A. Yeo) means that the complaint is a genuine, a proper, and a fully authenticated complaint and a thing that ought to be taken notice of by the tribunal. What we want the Board of Trade to do under this Sub-section is to receive and investigate properly authenticated complaints about which there can be no dubiety, not malicious, blackmailing, frivolous complaints, but complaints which arc in substance and in fact such as to receive investigation at the hands of the central tribunal, and therefore I lo not think what has been proposed by the Attorney-General quite meets what was in the hon. Gentleman's mind.
if a person brings a case before the tribunal or the local magistracy we put him on his oath and it is up to him to prove it. You cannot investigate until you have the case before the Court.
I beg to move, to leave out the words
a profit is being or has been made or sought on the sale of the article (whether wholesale or retail) which is, in view of all the circumstances, unreasonable, and on any such complaint they may by Order, after hearing the parties,—
and to insert instead thereof the words
prices are being charged either wholesale or retail which are, in view of all the circumstances, unreasonable, and after hearing the parties and considering the evidence the Board may either dismiss the complaint or reduce the price to one yielding a fair and reasonable profit, in which case, it payment has already been made, the Board may either order the seller to refund the difference to the buyer.
The Bill has been very hastily drafted, and does not in many of its Clauses make its meaning clear. Tile object of the Amendment is not to alter any principle of the Bill, but to try to make more clear its intentions and to put the options of the Board of Trade in their proper sequence. The Board of Trade is presented with three options and an alternative. May I point out how very confusing it is and how indefinite the wording is? To give one example, it is, I believe, impossible to say from the Bill as printed whether it is retrospective or not—whether its operation commences from the date of the passing of the Act or goes back a number of years. The wording is that the Board of Trade is
to receive and investigate complaints that a profit is being or has been made or sought.
I do not think anyone could say whether that is retrospective or not. I do not suppose for a moment that the Bill is intended to go back, but the Government should tell us frankly whether it is or whether it is intended to be for a future period. In my Amendment I have used the words "Prices are being charged which are, in view of all the circumstances, unreasonable" That makes it quite clear that it applies to the present time, and does not go back retrospectively an unlimited number of years. There are a good many other points covered by the Amendment. I do not want to repeat criticisms ad nauseam, but I would ask the Attorney-General if he thinks the words in the Bill, as printed, are so much better than mine that he intends to oppose my Amendment?
If he has any valid argument to show that the words of the Bill are better than mine. I may be allowed to explain why I press it.
I endeavoured not to make that criticism. I said I did not intend to repeat the many criticisms which have been delivered ad nauseam.
One way of saying one does not intend to repeat, is to repeat by saying those words. Whatever may be the point, and there may have been none, of that observation, I have no fault to find at all with the drafting of the Bill. I saw it for the first time when it had been completely drafted. I had no part or lot in it and therefore can speak with great impartiality. The subject matter with which the Bill deals is undoubtedly difficult and the only modes of handling the subject are modes which involve great difficulty. If I may say a word for the gentleman who cannot speak for himself I think that the draftsman of this Bill has performed his task with singular care and skill. What is proposed in this Amendment I It is not to alter any point of substance but it really is a proposal to substitute different and better words to accomplish the very purpose which is sought to be accomplished by the provision in the Bill. What are the words which the Bill contains? The Board of Trade is
to receive and investigate complaints that a profit is being or has been made.
It is suggested that a doubt arises there whether this Bill is to be retrospective. Of course, no Statute which is a penal Statute could possibly be retrospective unless it contains the clearest possible words to that effect. If there is any doubt upon that matter we shall be quite ready to insert words to put it beyond the region of doubt.
That is done in the next Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman (Sir A. Geddes) to insert "since the passing of this Act."
That is the next Amendment. The Amendment is quite superfluous. It is inconceivable, it is beyond parallel that a penal Statute can make something an offence which was not an offence before the Bill was passed unless it contains specific provision to that effect. The next words in the Bill are "has been made or sought." What are the words which my hon. Friend suggests? He suggests the word "charged." "Charged" is an ambiguous term. The payment may have been made or may not have been made. I think the draftsman was right when he used the words "has been made or sought." The charge has been successfully made or the bargain has been sought to be made. I should have thought the words of the Bill were perfectly plain and free from ambiguity. The Bill proceeds" on the sale of the article (whether wholesale or retail)" That is substantially what the hon. Member says. He uses the words "either wholesale or retail" The Bill goes on "which is, in view of all the circumstances, unreasonable." The Amendment says, "Which are, in view of all the circumstances, unreasonable." There is no variation.
Quite so! I am trying to see what is the improvement Now I come to the alternative. The wording of the Bill continues
and on any such complaint they may by Order, after hearing the parties,
do certain things. In the first place, they may
declare the price which would yield a reasonable profit and
after hearing the parties and considering the evidence the Board may either dismiss the complaint or reduce the price to one yielding a. fair and reasonable profit, in which case, if payment has already been made, the Board may either order the seller to refund the difference to the buyer.The Amendment leaves out the third alternative—
require the complainant to purchase the article at such priceI seriously submit that when one compares the words of the Amendment with the words of the draft it is evident that the words of the draft are the best.
A Back Bench Member is at great disadvantage in arguing points of this sort with the Attorney-General. I do not think the Attorney-General was as conciliatory as he might have been. He crititicises the fact that I had thought it necessary to make it clear that this Act should not be retrospective, and yet he pointed out that the President of the Board of Trade had in the very next Amendment done exactly what I was seeking to do. If it was unnecessary for me, without knowing that the President of the Board of Trade was going to put in that Amendment, it is, surely, unnecessary for the President of the Board of Trade to put it in. Therefore, I think the Attorney-General's criticism is really upon his own colleague. There are certain points of my Amendment which are similar to those in the Bill. As far as possible I have followed the wording of the Bill, and I do not think that should be made a matter for opprobrium. If, as the Attorney-General has said, the draftsman has done his work very well, surely that is a justification for following that part of the Bill as closely as possible, which I did. Then we come to the point in the Bill which says that the Board of Trade is to hear the parties. A few lines higher up it points out that the Board of Trade may call for and take documentary and other evidence. Therefore, in paragraph (b), where it says "after hearing the parties," I submit the words "and after considering the evidence" ought to be inserted. It is quite clear from the preceding paragraph that it is intended to call evidence. The next point is that in the Bill the first alternative put before the Board of Trade is to "declare the price which would yield a reasonable profit." What I say, first, is that the Board of Trade should consider the evidence, and after considering the evidence should decide whether to dismiss the complaint or whether to go forward with the case. If they dismiss the complaint that would be the end of the matter; the machinery would come to an end. But if they considered that there was substance in the complaint they would come to the next point, which would be to reduce the price. The next paragraph requires the seller to repay to the complainant any amount paid by the complainant in excess of such price. As the Attorney-General has pointed out, it is quite possible that the goods may or may not have been paid for. If they had not been paid for there would be no excess of payment. In view of that, I have put in what I consider a very businesslike and almost legal definition: "If payment has already been made, the Board may either order the seller to refund the difference to the buyer." Then it could follow the words of the Bill, "or may in lieu of maintaining such order, etc." There is a difference between verbiage which is difficult to understand by the people and verbiage which is perfectly clear and straight forward, and which can be understood. We have been reminded that 24,000,000 people in this country are fed by the small shopkeeper. That means that there are 24,000,000 people who need to understand this Bill. For that reason I think it most important that this Bill should not be confused, and my sole object has been to make it as plain as possible in ordinary English language.
Mr. KENNEDY JONES:
I hope that my hon. Friend is going to press his Amendment. Sub-section (b) says, "a profit is being or has been made or sought." What is the meaning of the word "sought"? If a man puts a ticket on a suit of clothes in a shop window, does that come under the word "sought"?
I may remind the Committee that there is an Amendment on the Paper to leave out the words "or sought." The Amendment before the Committee at the present moment is as to the best form of wording to carry out an agreed object, and it would be better for the Committee to keep as far as possible to that point and not to go into a question which may be raised by subsequent Amendments.
I bow to your knowledge of the Rules of the House of Commons, but this Amendment is to leave out the words from "that" to the end of (iii). If these words are left out, the word to which I am objecting, "sought," goes. Therefore, I suggest that I am entitled to discuss this point.
It is not a ruling which I could not perhaps enforce, but I think that the Committee would do well to act on my suggestion. The question put from the Chair will safeguard the other portions of the Clause.
I beg to move, after the word "been," to insert the words "since the passing of this Act."
The object of this Amendment is to remove any doubt in the mind of the popular reader of the Bill, and not because there is any necessity, so that it will be clear that it is not intended to refer to transactions which took place before the passing of the Act.
The Amendment handed in by the hon. Member has nothing to do with this Amendment, and when it comes on I will decide whether it is in order.
My whole object in criticising this Bill is to get it into a condition in which its scope and effect will be quite clear on the face of it. I do not know whether I am going to be successful in that or not, but I must assume for present purposes that the Bill is going through in its present form, under which practically the whole scope of the Bill will be dealt with by Regulations of the President of the Board. of Trade and the Food Controller. If that is so, the unfortunate public are going to be left in the position that though they know that they will not be guilty of an offence for anything done before the Bill passes, they will not know what is the offence with which they are to be charged until Regulations arc made by the President of the Board of Trade and the Food Controller. It is only reasonable in the interests of those who are to come under the Bill (if the Bill itself is not to be made clear, as it should be made clear, and as I hope before the early hours of the morning it will be made clear), that the Attorney-General should give us some assurance, which I would accept at once, that no Regulations will be retrospective, if the scope of the offence is fixed by Regulation the person who may be charged should know that the Regulation is not to be made retrospective.
I am not quite sure that I appreciate fully the meaning of what the hon. and gallant Gentleman has pub forward. As I understand it is this, that an assurance is desired that there is nothing in the Regulations which' can be made which tends to make that an offence which was not an offence before the passing of the Act,
No, the point is this. I feel perfectly convinced that, in the regulations which the Board of Trade issue, they will have to give some dear indication to the tribunal as to what is going to be the line in deciding what is an unreasonable profit. In order that the man who is being charged may know what he is charged with, that definition has got to be stated, and therefore I sub-suit that any offence that is defined by regulation ought to date from the date on which the regulations are published.
I am going to oppose the Amendment of the Attorney-General. There is little in this Bill that commends itself to this House or to the country, as I think the Government will have an opportunity of learning very shortly. But there was a chance under it of getting at the big trusts and combines and making them disgorge. Now, to my horror and amazement, I find that there is to be no such chance at all, and that they are to be left to enjoy the enormous profits which they have made, especially since the Armistice. It is the international combinations that I hope we shall be able to get at under a better Bill presently, perhaps under a different Government. They have made inordinate profits, and we have no means of making them disgorge. I think that this Amendment vitiates one of the few promises that the Bill held out.
I want to oppose the Amendment because it will inevitably rule out an Amendment I put down for the deliberate purpose of making the Act retrospective in certain respects. I heard what the Attorney-General said about the law, and no doubt his version of what the law has always been is perfectly correct. But this Bill is dealing with an abnormal state of affairs, and it is perfectly reasonable to expect that if you can produce the case of an abnormal state of affairs you ought to have a chance of inserting a Clause dealing with that state of affairs. I desire to have an addition made to the Clause which will make; it the duty of the Comptroller and Auditor-General to bring before the Board of Trade for the purposes of this Act all cases which have come to the notice of the Department of prices which he considers unreasonable—prices which have been charged to Government Departments by contractors and others during the War. I want, in a word, to make those people disgorge who robbed the Government, and, through the Government, robbed the country. I think robbery is not too strong a word in view of the evidence given before the National Expenditure and Public Accounts Select Committees. I am inclined to think that I shall have the House with me when I say that there have been cases in which it has been plain that the country has been unmercifully bled by contractors and others during the War. I say nothing of things that I am afraid took place as the result of that robbery. I merely say that in this abnormal state of affairs I believe that the ordinary custom of English law may well be altered, that the War profiteer should finally be brought to book, and that the country should enter as far as it can into its own. I know that claims may be made by those who profiteered during the War that they were ignorant of the conditions and of what they were doing. That, to me, is no excuse whatever. I do not want to labour matters. The Report of the Committees are there. What went on is common knowledge. I hope that this Amendment will be defeated, because if it is carried we shall have absolutely no chance under this Bill of getting at the people I want to reach—people who should pay back to the country the money which they took in the day of the country's emergency.
I think the hon. Member fell into a cardinal error. If this Amendment is rejected it will make no difference whatever to the legal effect of the Bill. As the Attorney-General so well and clearly said, the effect of the Bill is that no individual under this or any other Act can be prosecuted for an act which was. not a crime at the time it was committed. I think that is also an answer to my hon. Friend behind me (Major Lloyd Greame).
I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman's Amendment will be very excellent, but he has to consider on its merits the particular Amendment now before the House, and he is the unfortunate victim of a system by which excellent; Amendments may possibly never be discussed at all and the decision is given to others. With regard to what the hon. and gallant Member for Hendon said, I think he is rather too optimistic, because he apparently looks forward to the time when Regulations will be issued by the Board of Trade which will contain, among other things, a definition of profiteering. I am told that some promise bearing that interpretation was given by the President of the Board of Trade on the Committee stage.
If that is so, it is necessary for the House to be absolutely certain at this stage that the crime which would then be denned by the Government in a Departmental Order should not involve the antedating of an Act as a crime, when under the ordinary law it would not be a crime at all. I think, therefore, that my hon. Friend is somewhat too optimistic. if the President of the Board of Trade was correct when he told the Select Committee that he had in his mind a scheme for such Regulations, then I think the Government owe it to the House to say at this stage what is their definition of the crime of profiteering. If they have not in their mind now, after a considerable number of days of thought, any concise definition which they can give to the country and to the tribunals, then I think the House is certainly justified in exercising the greatest possible care in dealing with the Amendment. It certainly does appear to me, and I think to many hon. Members, that one of the cardinal flaws of the Act is that we really do not know from begining to end what we are dealing with. The ground gives way under our feet at every step. What is profiteering, and frank profiteering, in one circumstance, may not be profiteering in another, may be really selling at a loss? In this condition of affairs the Government come to the House and they ask the House to give them power to prosecute for crimes which they cannot define, which after weeks of thought they are unable to define, and about which they cannot give the House the least measure of guidance. Therefore, although I do not agree with my hon. Friend (Major Lloyd Greame) on the merits of this particular Amendment, I agree with him in the gist of what he has said, and I would, with him, appeal to the Government to give us some further guidance as to what really is the crime with which this Bill deals, and to tell us whether, under the Regulations on which all seems to hang, a definition of profiteering will be given and definite guidance given to the tribunals all over the country. If this goes to a Division, I shall certainly support the Government; but I would suggest to my hon. Friend opposite (Mr. T. Shaw) that the position is adequately safeguarded by the general character of the law, to which the Attorney-General has referred, and I would ask hon. Members not to press their opposition. My hon. Friend said he does not want the Clause. I dare say he does not. Nobody wants it except the Attorney-General, and he wants the Clause simply because the ordinary person outside, who is presumed to be an exceedingly ignorant person, incapable of understanding the law—
I was dealing with the specific evidence of the Attorney-General that it was necessary to insert these words, not to alter the scope of the character of the Clause, but simply to prevent misunderstanding by people outside as to what is the actual effect of the Bill.
As a member of the Select Committee, may I say that the President of the Board of Trade gave us to understand that something was to be done with regard to profiteering in the past. He said, speaking from recollection, that a plan had been considered which could not be mentioned at the moment, but that something was going to be done. No-doubt people who have been profiteering have been very uncomfortable, but now that the Attorney-General moves that the Bill shall only apply after its passing he practically says to those people, "Do not worry. You have got your money, and we have taken some of it in Excess Profits Taxes, but nothing more will be said about it, and be careful for the future."
I am sorry my hon. Friend does not wish to make a false point. This Amendment does not say that, or say anything at all, and does not alter the Bill.
What is the object of the Government suggesting an Amendment if it does not alter the Bill?
As I explained previously, in order to make it clear to that nebulous person the man in the street.
I am afraid the effect will be, as I have suggested, that people will come to the conclusion that the profiteer is not going to be punished, because this Bill is only to apply after its passing.
I understand that the Amendment of my hon. Friend (Mr. T. Shaw) will be ruled out of order if this Amendment is carried. That is a sufficient reason for me to vote against this Amendment, because there is no doubt that the country has had to pay many millions of money when it was at a time of stress and strain, and that was a crime against the country for which those who committed it ought to be punished. Whatever may be the merits of this Amendment, there should be an opportunity of considering the action of those people who took those millions, and for that reason I shall vote against this Amendment.
One fundamental principle of our legislation is that only in very rare cases is anything ever made retrospective. The Attorney-General's view is that the Bill is not so now. I suggested, and I was the first to do so, in the columns of the London Press, a totally different method of dealing with the people who have been profiteering, and that was by way of a levy for the purpose of paying the cost of the War on those people who had amassed large fortunes during the war period. Such a levy would go to the State, whereas if this Bill were made retrospective the money would only go from A to B, and it would be retrospectively making a man a criminal.
It would require an investigation into the past.
Let us get on with the present and the future, or we will get back into the Garden of Eden and the apple before we finish. When I saw this Bill and heard the arguments I thought at first I had drifted into some place where everybody was not in the full possession of his senses. It is the most extraordinary Bill ever put up, but let us try not to make it unreasonable. I have advocated the principle of lightening the burden of taxation on the rest of the community by a levy on those gentlemen who managed owing to war circumstances to amass large fortunes. Some of them have become great landowners, in the hope that they may become English country gentlemen. It takes three generations, as a rule, to do so, and I think in the case of the war profiteer it will take at least five. My proposal would be fair, and merely a matter of taxation. If this Amendment were not carried, and if the Bill were made retrospective, it would lead to endless trouble and endless inquiry and investigation. The business of the country has got to goon, and we cannot be all continuously employed in going into the colossal series of small investigations which would result. We have heard a great deal about profiteering in food and other comestibles, but there is one kind of profiteering which has not been mentioned, and that is that which went on in milliners' and drapers' shops. When they raised their prices they were always gladly paid, and it was there that a large portion of the munition worker's-wages went. I think it would have been more important and more for the good of the community if the Government had appointed a clothing controller instead of a drink controller. I am perfectly serious in. making that statement. There were many women who spent their husbands' earnings on personal adornment, and many women suffered through the lure of dress as men suffered through the lure of drink. If Lord D' Abernon's efforts had been directed to this question, he could probably have saved atremendous amount of money to the community. I protest against any idea of making a thing like this restrospective. It will be a troublesome enough Bill and a dangerous enough Bill to work as it is. You have got to make sure that you do not cut off your source of supply and discourage the small producer. I believe that a great deal of the profiteering results from the fact that the trading is carried on in shops instead of in markets, where the producer and consumer could meet. Once you solved that problem you would solve almost wholly the social problem, since you would eliminate the middleman. The average corporation or town council is composed of shop keepers who discourage markets because they compete with the shops. If you could once get back to marketing direct between producer and consumer you would have solved a great part of the question of profiteering, at all events in provisions. We should do all we can to induce
(Mr. Whitley): The ion. Member is becoming much too general in his remarks.
I protest against this attempt to make the Bill retrospective, because it is a fundamental principle of our law that you cannot convict a man of a crime that was not a crime at the tune it was committed. If you do so you are tearing up the -whole Constitution, and rights for which this country has fought for about a thousand years.
|Division No. 98.]||AYES.||[9.35 p.m.|
|Adair, Rear-Admiral||Greenwood, Col. Sir Hamar||Ormsby-Gore, Hon. William|
|Agg-Gardner, Sir James Tynte||Gregory, Horman||Parker, James|
|Ainswortin, Captain C.||Grecton, Colonel John||Pease, Rt. Hon. Herbert Pike|
|Astor, Major Hon. Waldorf||Griggs, Sir Peter||Pennefather, De Fonblanque|
|Baird, John Lawrence||Guinness, Capt. Hon. R. (Southend)||Perkins, Walter Frank|
|Balfour, George (Hampstead)||Guinness, Lt.-Col. Hon. W.E. (B. St. E.)||Perring, William George|
|Banbury, Rt. Hon. Sir Frederick||Hailwood, A.||Pollock, Sir Ernest Murray|
|Barnett, Major Richard W. :||Hamilton, Major C. G. C. (Altrincham)||Pran, John William|
|Barnston, Major Harry||Henry, Denis s. (Londonderry, S.)||Prescott, Major W. H.|
|Beauchamp, Sir Edward||Herbert, Denniss (Hertford)||Pulley, Charles Thornton|
|Beck, Arthur Cecil||Hewart, Rt. Hon. Sir Gordon||Purchase, H. G.|
|Bell, Lieut.-Col. W. C. H. (Devizes);||Higham, C. F. (Islington, S.)||Rae, H. Norman|
|Benn, Sir Arthur S. (Plymouth)||Hilder, Lieut.-Col. F.||Raeourn, Sir William|
|Birchall, Major J. D.||Hills, Major J. W. (Durham)||Raper, A. Baldwin|
|Blades, Sir George R.||Hoare, Lt.-Col. Sir Samuel J. G.||Ratcliffe, Henry Butler|
|Blair, Major Reginald:||Hope, James Fitzalan (Sheffield)||Raw, Lieut.-Colonel Dr.|
|Brackenbury, Captain H. L.||Hopkinson, Austin (Mossley)||Remer, J. B.|
|Bridgeman, William Clive||Hughes, Spencer Leigh||Richardson, Alex. (Gravesend|
|Briggs, Harold||Hunter, General Sir A. (Lancaster)||Roberts, Rt. Hon. G. H. (Norwich)|
|Broad, Thomas Tucker||Hurst, Major G. B.||Robinson, S. (Brecon and Radner)|
|Brown, Captain D. C. (Hexham)||Inskip, T. W. H.||Rogers, Sir Hallewell|
|Brown, T. W. (Down, N.)||Jackson, Lieut.-Col. Hon. F. S. (York)||Roundell, Lieut.-Colonel R. F.|
|Buckley, Lt.-Col. A.||Jesson, C.||Samuel, A. M. (Farnham, Surrey)|
|Butcher, Sir J. G.||Jodrell, N. P.||Samuel, S. (Wandsworth, Putney)|
|Campbell, J. G. D.||Johnson, L. S.||Sanders, Colonel Robert Arthur|
|Campion, Col. W. R.||Johnstone, J.||Seddon, J. A.|
|Carew, Charles R. S. (Tiverton)||Jones, J. Towyn (Carmarthen)||Seely, Maj.-Gen. Rt. Hon. John|
|Carr, W. T.||Jones, Wm. Kennedy (Hornsey)||Shaw, Hon. A. (Kilmarnock)|
|Carter, R. A. D. (Manchester)||Kellaway, Frederick George||Shaw, Captain W. T. (Forfar)|
|Casey, T. W.||Kerr-Smiley, Major Peter Kerr||Shortt, Rt. Hon. E. (N'castle-on-T., W.)|
|Cecil, Rt. Hon. Evelyn (Aston Manor)||Kidd, James||Simm, Colonel M. T.|
|Cecil, Rt. Hon. Lord R. (Hitchin)||Knights, Captain H.||Sprot, Colonel Sir Alexander|
|Child, Brig.-Gen. Sir Hill||Larmor, Sir J.||Stanier, Captain Sir Beville|
|Clough, R.||Law, Right Hon. A. Bonar (Glasgow)||Stanley, Col. Hon. G. F. (Preston)|
|Cobb, Sir Cyril||Lewis, Rt. Hon. J. H. (Univ., Wales)||Stephenson, Colonel H. K.|
|Conway, Sir W. Martin||Lister, Sir R. Ashton||Stevens, Marshall|
|Cory, Sir James Herbert (Cardiff)||Lloyd, George Butler||Stewart, Gershom|
|Cowan, D. M. (Scottish University)||Locker-Lampion, Com. O (Hunt'don)||Strauss. Edward Anthony|
|Craig, Col. Sir James (Down, Mid.)||Long, Rt. Hon. Walter||Sugden, W. H.|
|Craig, Lt.-Com. N. (Isle of Thanet)||Lorden, John William||Sutherland, Sir William|
|Davidson, Major-Gen. Sir John H.||Lort-Williams, J.||Talbot, G. A. (Hemel Hempstead|
|Davies, Major David (Montgomery Co.)||Loseby, Captain C. E.||Taylor, J. (Dumbarton)|
|Davies, Sir Joseph (Crewe)||Lowe, Sip F. W.||Thomson, Sir W. Mitchell- (M'yhl)|
|Davies, T. (Cirencester)||M'Laren, R. (Lanark, N.)||Townley, Maximilan G.|
|Davison, Sir W. H. (Kensington)||McMicklng, Major Gilbert||Tryon, Major George Clement|
|Dawes, J. A.||Macquisten, F. A.||Vickers, D.|
|Dennis, J. W.||Mallalieu, Frederick William||Ward-Jackson, Major C. L.|
|Dewhurst, Lieut.-Com. H.||Malone, Major P. (Tottenham, S.)||Ward, Colonel L. (Kingston-upon-Hull)|
|Du Pre. Colonel W. B.||Mitchell, William Lane-||Ward, W. Dudley (Southampton)|
|Elliot, Capt. W. E. (Lanark)||Morden, Col. H. Grant||Wild, Sir Ernest Edward|
|Eyres-Monsell, Commander||Moreing, Captain Algernon H.||Williams, A. (Consett, Durham)|
|FitzRoy, Capt. Hon. Edward A.||Morison, T. B. (Inverness)||Wood, Major Hon. E. (Ripon)|
|Flannery, Sir J. Fortescue||Murray, Lt.-Col. Hon. A. C. (Aberdeen)||Woolcock, W. J. U.|
|Forestier-Walker, L,||Murray, Major C.D. (Edinburgh, S.)||Worthington-Evans, Rt. Hon. Sir L.|
|Gardiner, J. (Perth)||Murray, William (Dumfries)||Yeo, Sir Alfred William|
|Geddes, Rt Hen. Sir A. C. (Basingstoke)||Nall, Major Joseph||Young, Sir F. W. (Swindon)|
|Gibbs, Colonel George Abraham||Newman, Sir R. H. S.D. (Exeter)|
|Gilmour, Lieut.-Colonel John||Nield, Sir Herbert||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—Captain|
|Greame, Major P. Lloyd||Norris, Sir Henry G.||F. Guest and Lord E. Talbot.|
|Green, J. F. (Leicester)||Oman, C. W. C.|
|Acland, Rt. Hon. Francis Dyke||Guest, J. (Hemsworth, York)||Royce, William Stapleton|
|Barnes, Major H. (Newcastle, E.)||Hall, F. (Yorks, Normanton)||Sexton, James|
|Bowerman, Rt. Hon. C. W.||Hinds, John||Shaw, Tom (Preston)|
|Bowyer, Capt. G. W. E.||Hirst, G. H.||Short, A. (Wednesbury)|
|Briant, F.||Jones, G. W. H. (Stoke Newington)||Smith, Capt. A. (Nelson and Colne)|
|Bromfield, W.||Kelly, Major Fred (Rotherham)||Smith, W. (Wellingborough)|
|Cairns, John||Kenworthy, Lieut.-Commander||Spencer, George A.|
|Cape, Tom||Kenyon, Barnet||Spcor, B. G.|
|Carter, W. (Mansfield)||Kiley, James Daniel||Swan, J. E. C.|
|Clay, Captain H. H. Spender||Maclean, Neil (Glasgow, Govan)||Thomas, Brig.-Gen. Sir O. (Anglesey)|
|Davies, Alfred (Clitheroe)||Maclean, Rt. Hon. Sir D. (Midlothian)||Thomson, T. (Middlesbrough, W.)|
|Davison, J. E. (Smethwick)||Marks, Sir George Croydon||Thorne, G. R. (Wolverhampton, E)|
|Doyle, N. Grattan||Murray, Dr. D. (Western isles)||Wignall, James|
|Edwards, C. (Bedwellty)||Onions, Alfred||Wilson, W. T. (Westhoughton)|
|Edwards, Major J. (Aberavon)||Parkinson, John Allen (Wigan)||Wood, Major Mackenzie (Aberdeen, C)|
|Edwards, J. H. (Glam., Neath)||Richardson, R. (Houghton)|
|Finney, Samuel||Roberts, F. O. (W. Bromwich)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—Mr.|
|Griffiths, T. (Pontypool)||Grundy, T. W.||Holmes and Mr. Limn.|
|Gritten, W. G. Howard||Rowlands, James|
Question put, and agreed to
The next Amend ment is that of the lion, and gallant Member for Hull—to leave out paragraph (iii).
The Amendment I call is that to leave out paragraph (iii). Under the Standing Order I have power to select: in that way.
Shall I not be able to move the first one?
I beg to move, to leave out paragraph (iii) This is the first time the "Kangaroo" has been exercised on me. Under this paragraph you "require the complainant to purchase the article at such price." How can you make a man buy something he does not want to buy? It is altogether vague, and quite in line with this extra ordinary Bill. New offences are brought in. It is an offence now to make a profit on a transaction, and now a new crime is created, and if you do not buy something you will be punished. Really I do not know what we have fought the War for, if the only result is that we do not know what we may do in business, and what crimes we are committing until we are, called before some tribunal and found guilty.;
Of course, the meaning of this decision is perfectly clear to anyone who desires to understand it. The complaint may be that profit has been I made, or profit has been sought, but it is important that the complaint should be sincere. It therefore provides that the tribunal, Board of Trade, or whoever looks into the matter, shall say whether a reasonable price is asked. In the one alternative the man has paid too much. In that case, the seller has to repay him the difference. In the other alternative he has not bought, and he has to buy at a reasonable price,
The point I would like to pat-to the Attorney-General is this: The Bill says a complaint may be made that the price sought is too much. Let us assume that a woman goes into a, shop and wants to buy a dress. The price asked appears to her to be exorbitant, and, instead of buying the dress, she lodges a complaint. It will take a long time probably before that complaint is heard. In the meantime, she has bought a dress somewhere else, and yet the Bill says that this woman who, on public grounds, brings a complaint against the shopkeeper for asking an excessive price, may be compelled two or three months afterwards to buy a dress she no longer wants, at a price settled by the tribunal. Surely that is absurd.
I want to ask another question. Supposing a man goes to a corn, merchant at one of the Exchanges, and asks the price of wheat or barley, and, according to the price quoted, he is prepared to buy a large or small parcel, and an excessive price is asked, how much wheat or barley is comprehended in the expression "the article"? What sort of an Order may be made upon a man who has not made up his mind how much he is going to buy, but wants to know what the price is going to be? I do not see how in such a case an Order could be made.
I am quite sure it needs little ingenuity to imagine any number of possible cases under this Bill or any Bill. I call attention to one word. It is "may," not "shall." In the case supposed it would be impossible to make the Order.
I think the power sought here is certainly one we ought not to grant. I quite agree that where a complaint has been improperly made, the person making the complaint ought to be made to pay the costs. But to give the power to enforce completion of contract in this way is quite a different matter. The man may have merely asked the price. It may be very much against the interests or the desire of the would-be seller to deliver these goods, but the Board of Trade official, or, in this case, one of the enthusiastic members of the tribunal, may insist that the complainant purchases the article. To require the complainant to purchase the article at such a price is an absolutely new thing. The justice of the whole case would be fully met, I suggest, by making the complainant who is found to be wrong pay the costs. If it cannot be done here, I suggest it can be done on Report.
I am very anxious to meet the reasonable wishes of the Committee. The horrible case has been suggested to me that a lady might buy a hat, the investigation might take three months, in which time the lady's hat would be hopelessly out of fashion. The case is irresistible. The Government will with draw the paragraph, and consider before Report as to making suitable provision to provide for unnecessary or unsuccessful complaints.
I beg to move, in paragraph (b), to leave out the words
or may, in lieu of making such Order, where they think the circumstances of the case so require, take proceedings against the seller before a Court of Summary Jurisdiction, and if in such proceedings it is found that the price charged or demanded by the seller is such as to yield to him a profit which is, in view of all the" circumstances, unreasonable, he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding two hundred pounds or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months,
and to insert instead thereof
(3) If, as a result of any investigation undertaken on their own initiative or on complaint made to them, it appears to the Board of Trade that the circumstances so require, the Board shall take proceedings against the seller before a Court of Summary Jurisdiction, and if in such proceedings it is found that the price
charged or demanded about which the complaint was made or the price discovered at the investigation to have been charged or demanded was such as to yield a profit which is, in view of all the circumstances, unreasonable, the seller shall be liable on summary conviction to a. fine not exceeding two hundred pounds or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to both such imprisonment and fine.
What is proposed in the Amendment is to leave out the words at the end of paragraph (b), and to insert as a substantive Sub-clause the provision which I have moved. The point of substance which differentiates this proposal from that in the Bill is that, instead of making these proceedings an alternative, they make it possible for the Board of Trade to commence such proceedings, if, on investigation, the first or second time, the circumstances seem to require it. It has been said more than once in the course of discussion that there was in this Bill no definition of the offence which the Bill in intended to meet. It is further suggested that, in the Regulations to be made under this Act, it would be proper to define the offence. The speakers themselves showed the impossibility of making a precise definition. It was allowed that what in some circumstances would be profiteering might not be in other circumstances. It is precisely for that reason, amongst others, that a definition is impossible. What does this provision profess to do? To prevent that which, in all the circumstances of the case, is an unusual profit. Profit may vary from time to time and from place to place. It is a question of fact in each case and in all the circumstances of the case. I suggest that in this new Sub-clause the Committee gets as near a definition as the circumstances permit: I am not saying it is a definition, but that it is as near as you can get in such a case. The provision reads: where
it is found that the price charged or demanded about which the complaint is made or the price discovered at the investigation to have been charged or demanded, was such as to yield a profit which is in all the circumstances unreasonable.
I do not say that is a definition, but if a person, not for controversial purposes, but with a desire to arrive at the truth of the matter seeks a description of what is or could be made an offence, these words, I think, are sufficient to satisfy his curiosity.