Orders of the Day — Clause 1. — (Power to make regulations as to foodstuffs.)

– in the House of Commons on 6th October 1931.

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Photo of Mr James Ede Mr James Ede , South Shields

I beg to move, in page 2, line 13, to leave out the word "hundred," and to insert instead thereof the word "thousand."

I do not intend to repeat anything that I said when we discussed the penalty Clause during the Committee stage, but the effect of this Amendment, if carried, would be to make the fine £1,000 instead of £100.

Photo of Mr Philip Lloyd-Greame Mr Philip Lloyd-Greame , Hendon

I have had an opportunity of considering this Amendment, and I think, after consultation with my right hon. and learned Friend, that £1,000 would be an excessive sum to give to a court of summary jurisdiction, but there is something to be said for exceeding the maximum penalty of £100, because there are not here first and subsequent offences so that the penalty can rise after the first offence. I agree that you might have to take the case of some very large undertaking committing a series of offences, and I think we might compromise by putting in £500.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: In page 2, line 13, leave out the word "one," and insert instead thereof the word "five."—[Sir P. Cunliffe-Lister.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

Photo of Mr Andrew MacLaren Mr Andrew MacLaren , Stoke-on-Trent Burslem

Last night, when we were discussing the Sunday Performances Bill, I was astonished to learn that the Government had issued a three-line Whip in order to call attention to the importance of the Bill; I was amazed when I heard that, in view of the possible difficulties that may be brought into being after this House dissolves, and if not then, at least in the coming winter, when one of the main problems facing us will be the possible rise in the price of food. As a result of this apprehension, no doubt the Government were inspired to bring in this Bill. The Bill, like many Bills brought into this House, begins at the wrong end of the process. It is a Bill to govern the prices of food and drink, instead of being a Bill of a more comprehensive character, because it is not entirely in food and drink that we may look for a certain form of—to use a word which I think should never be used in an Act of Parliament—exploitation, but in rents. We know that up and down the country—

Mr. SPEAKER:

That is not in order on the Third Reading. The Bill deals only with food and drink.

Photo of Mr Andrew MacLaren Mr Andrew MacLaren , Stoke-on-Trent Burslem

I am merely saying that it should be more comprehensive.

Mr. SPEAKER:

Yes, but that would not be in order on the Third Reading.

Photo of Mr Andrew MacLaren Mr Andrew MacLaren , Stoke-on-Trent Burslem

My point is that it is not comprehensive enough. The main apprehension is that there might be an increase in the price of food, and one would have thought that the best thing to do to keep down the prices of food would be to increase supplies. The right hon. Gentleman, when he was introducing the Bill, emphasised the point that we were subject in this country to—

Mr. SPEAKER:

That would not be in order on this question.

Photo of Mr Andrew MacLaren Mr Andrew MacLaren , Stoke-on-Trent Burslem

I am merely replying to the point raised by the Minister.

Mr. SPEAKER:

But he did not raise it on the Third Reading.

Photo of Mr Andrew MacLaren Mr Andrew MacLaren , Stoke-on-Trent Burslem

If I am going to be tied down merely to commenting on the Bill, and not showing as best I can that it does not cope with the situation at all, and that it is the wrong way to deal with a rise in the prices of food, I have at least given a hint of what I think might have been done to increase the supplies in the country and keep down prices. With regard to this whole bureaucratic tendency of running around and inquiring and nosing into people's little shops, and finding out what they are all doing, I believe in allowing the free operation of natural economic laws to determine prices, and not in calling upon busybodies to run along and see what everybody else is doing. It seems, however, that one is left almost alone in this House to advocate freedom of action and leaving to the operation of natural law those things which we now seem to think the bureaucracy in Whitehall can do under the instructions of Governments. It has been tried in other countries, and wherever you go in Australia, for instance, and make inquiries as to the operation of the fixation of prices, you hear all sorts of complaints, and not merely complaints, but reports as to the way in which certain people who are selling at prices which may be deemed to be inordinate are allowed to continue those prices if a certain amount of consideration is handed over between the man in the shop and the inspector. I am not saying that that would happen here, but the temptations are there, none the less.

Your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, has been so severe that I feel that my wings are clipped, because I looked forward to the Third Reading to give the Bill a proper trouncing, and I hoped to make it plain that there were other ways and means of dealing with food prices than by setting up machinery of this kind. I was interested to notice that the Minister said he hoped that six months would be quite enough time to give this Bill, and indeed it would not be proper in the interests of—shall I use the phrase?—window-dressing to extend the six months to a year. But surely we cannot look at what is lying ahead of us without feeling that measures will have to be prolonged much longer than six months. There are 12 months lying ahead of us, and it will take a very wise Government, and very busy all the time, and much more busy during the next 12 months than the Prime Minister was during the past two years, to reconstruct society and rear it into some semblance of normality out of the mess in which it now finds itself. By the end of six months, probably, the difficulties will have been accentuated, what with the drop in wages caused by the insurance policy and the tendency for prices to rise.

I was amazed to hear the Minister suggest that we had certain supplies in the country which he thought would be quite sufficient to cope with any emergency, because last week one of the leading financial journals of this country tabulated almost a column of articles that were bound to rise in price in the near future; and, if that is so, I do not think we should be too complacent, and think that by passing this Bill, six months will see us into safety.

With regard to the loose phrasing of the Bill, I did not enter into the discussion on that point, but I think the Attorney-General will agree that certain words in the Bill are not in purely legal language. The word "exploitation" is used. I do not know how the Minister is going to be quite clear in his own mind as to when exploitation really takes place. If certain rises take place in rents and rates, and these are incorporated in prices, will it be deemed to be exploitation if the shopkeepers take advantage of that situation, or will it be deemed to be in the natural course when increased taxation and local rates—as undoubtedly will happen, owing to the distress in local areas—take place and are merged in prices? Will not the Minister act, but deem it to be in the normal course that prices should rise in proportion? It would be interesting also to know how a court of law would define the word "exploitation." I think it would be much better to put in the proper words, such as "taking advantage of a certain situation" and to get rid of this word "exploitation." I am afraid the Prime Minister has had a hand in this and has got back to his old soap box days and used this word which they used to sling about in his earlier period.

Further in the Clause I notice that the phrase "unreasonable increase in price" is used in a negative way. When is a rise in price deemed to be reasonable or unreasonable I can conceive two barristers in the Law Courts having a fine time on that point, and the Attorney-General, from his experience before the House of Lords in questions of appeal on the De-rating Act, will agree that much clearer language than this has given no end of opportunity for litigation and expense. Your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, by which I must abide, and which was due, no doubt, to your apprehension that I was about to refer to something which is very near to my heart, has rather compelled me to put on the soft pedal. The Bill is necessary in present circumstances, but I only wish that the two years that have passed had been more fully used by the Prime Minister in those nights when he frittered away his time and no one could get him tied down to anything, and when entertaining Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford was more in his line than preparing the country for the crisis that was coming, philandering rather than preparing himself for his task—

Mr. SPEAKER:

There is nothing in the Bill about that.

Photo of Mr Andrew MacLaren Mr Andrew MacLaren , Stoke-on-Trent Burslem

There is not, but we are driven to tactics of this kind by a sudden crisis and by virtue of the fact that nothing was done to prepare the country for the crisis in which it finds itself. Surely I am not going to be entirely debarred from making a reflection on the man who is now Prime Minister of England and who now tells us that we must resort to measures of emergency and take immediate and drastic action. I am going to tell the Prime Minister that this Bill would not have been necessary if he had been more assiduous in his task, had appreciated the tendency in this country during the past two years and had prepared for the emergency that was inevitably coming. You will therefore excuse me, Mr. Speaker, if I am a little heated. I feel strongly because for two years I had to sit and watch while the Government, instead of preparing for these difficulties, did nothing. It, therefore, ill becomes the Prime Minister and the Government now to promote measures with which in their heart of hearts they do not agree. They are compelled by circumstances to promote schemes and Bills which a few weeks ago they would have denounced and laughed at with derision. We will see how this Bill operates. As an opponent of all this finicky, bureaucratic inspection of the individual, I shall take a pathological interest in it and see how it operates. If preparations had been made for the crisis, the Government, instead of resorting to measures of this kind, would have made opportunities in the country to give a chance to home supplies of food, and freed the country from the rise and fall of prices which depend on the exigencies of the moment.

Photo of Mr John Palin Mr John Palin , Newcastle upon Tyne West

There is certainly grave necessity for a Measure of this kind, particularly in certain parts of the country such as the district that I represent. If I thought that the Bill would be operated ruthlessly, I would be prepared to welcome it, but I cannot believe that the President of the Board of Trade is sincere in the various protestations that he has made in the last few weeks that there is no exploitation of food and other necessaries. Many of us know that there has been, and to bring in this Measure now is like locking the door after the horse has been stolen. If, however, it is a death-bed repentance, we should welcome it because the Measures which the Government have introduced in this so-called emergency will undoubtedly cause a great deal of suffering, which would be intensified if the exploitation of food and other necessaries were persisted in.

I am rather surprised at the machinery which has been set up. So far as I can understand the President's lucid explanation, the machinery of detection and for bringing the malefactor to justice will be so complicated that it is doubtful whether anybody will be detected, and if they are detected, ever brought to justice. There will be a difficulty in securing a conviction, and the Bill seems to me to resolve itself very largely into what has been described as a piece of window-dressing to cover up the misdeeds of previous legislation. However, I can only hope that the Bill may have the effect which the President pretends that it will have. I have serious doubts, and I am afraid that when the "doctor's mandate" becomes operative the prescription will still be starvation.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.