Industrial Concentration and Retail Trade.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 23rd July 1942.

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Photo of Mr Hugh Dalton Mr Hugh Dalton , Bishop Auckland

In counting opinions it is only fair to say that, rightly or wrongly, they were all opposed to the scheme and did not wish to come in. This survey of opinion which I have been carrying out has revealed a formidable array of opposition among the interests affected by the proposal, and the Government must necessarily take account of these expressions of opinion. But I give an assurance to the Committee that the Government will give most careful consideration to the report and to any observations that are made to-day by any hon. Member in any part of the Committee on the subject both of the recommendations in the Report, and any other aspect of the matter, because there are other aspects which naturally were not developed in the Report. The Government have not yet taken a decision on policy, and it would have been wrong, as I have said in answer to questions some weeks ago, had it done so before debate and discussion so that we might know what is thought in various parts of the House and the trade. I am anxious not to proceed at any length at this stage. I will merely say that there are a number of technical points arising out of the Committee's recommendations into which I am going carefully. So far as their proposal that the levy should be classed as a business expense for all trade purposes is concerned, I can say that I think there would be no difficulty about treating contributions as an expense for taxation purposes, because that is done now for payments under industrial concentration schemes, which are somewhat analogous. To treat the levy as an expense for purposes which includes the fixing of prices is rather more difficult. I am not saying "yes" or "no "; but it is only fair to give the warning that the Government do still attach importance to keeping the cost of living as low as we can, and that, in so far as the levy would result in a rise in the cost of living, it would be a serious matter. A number of those who saw me, including the tobacconists, said that it would be a very heavy levy indeed upon them, and that they would not be able to pass it on.

I want to speak of one or two matters about which, although they are touched on in the third Report of the Committee, I think there is something more to be said. The Committee made proposals, in paragraphs 44 to 47, for establishing fresh conciliation machinery to assist the withdrawing trader who cannot meet his obligations. There has not been the same criticism of those proposals as there has been of some others. The question of the Liabilities (War-time Adjustment) Act, and the use made of it, should be gone into more fully, not merely from the point of view of withdrawing traders but from that of continuing traders. It is a question worth studying whether some of these fixed charges, which have come from the days of peace, when conditions were so different, should not be alleviated in some way without insolvency being involved in applications to officers under the Act. That is one of the matters that I intend to look into.

I have constantly in these consultations been met with the suggestion that the small trader is not getting his fair share of the available supplies. Clearly, that must be investigated. One man told me that they did not want a burial benefit but that they wanted a fair share of what was going now. One said that he did not want a burial benefit payable to his landlord. They nearly all emphasised that they were getting a smaller proportion of what was available than they used to get before the war. I asked several of the spokesmen of these associations to get me as much evidence of that as they could. It may be that many of the small traders are unduly optimistic about their capacity to see the war through without taking advantage of such facilities as are suggested in the Committee's Report. But one cannot but admire the spirit which animates many of those who want to keep their flag flying. I notice a lot of that spirit in the lately depressed areas, like my own constituency, where they say, "It cannot be so bad again as it was when nearly everybody was out of work." I should not be at all surprised if many manufacturers and wholesalers find it pays them much better to make large deliveries to large shops, rather than to make a series of small deliveries to small shops. It must be borne in mind that, with the petrol restrictions and difficulties of distribution, it is cheaper from their point of view to do that. But there is enough evidence to satisfy me that the whole question must be looked into, and I am prepared to go into it, with the aid of all those who can give me any information.

Quite apart from the interests of the firms, there are two reasons why the small man should be able to get supplies. First, in the rural areas there are no large shops, and, therefore, a maldistribution between the large man and the small man means maldistribution against the countryman. That is most undesirable. Secondly, the mobile labour still to be drawn out is probably in the large shops, and if the Ministry of Labour cut down the staffs of the large shops which have a large turnover, those shops will no longer be able to handle that turnover, while the small shops will not be able to get sufficient turnover to keep themselves occupied. I will look into that matter, and I shall be glad of any assistance from the House or from the people concerned.

I would like to take action on this matter soon; but I must first be sure that the action I take is in the right direction, and that it has the support, at any rate, of a substantial proportion of those affected. It would be foolish to try to force down the throats of those engaged in retail trade a scheme to which a considerable number is opposed. I do not share the view that it is practicable in war time—and probably it is not at any time desirable—to have a thorough-going rationalisation of the retail trade, so that we have nothing left but multiple shops and chain stores. I am sure that that is not desired in the country. The independent shopkeeper has his contribution to make, and he adds to the pleasures of life for people who do not regard shopping as a disagreeable necessity, but who, when they have time for it, regard it as a pleasant way of spending time. Although in war-time we have to give up many luxuries and many ways of life to which we are accustomed, I would not, in peacetime, like to see life made so drab.

The Board of Trade is concerned with a great number of the nation's economic activities. With many of these I have not been able to deal to-day. I have said nothing about clothes rationing and very little about price regulation, I have barely touched on the exports side, and I have said nothing about war damage or about films, which is another of my children. The chief task which has confronted me since I became President of the Board of Trade has been the home front task of, on the one hand, safeguarding the supplies necessary for the civilian population in time of war, and, on the other hand, assisting my colleagues in other Departments in making every worker, every ounce of material, and every ton of shipping space, not needed for civilian consumption, available for direct war service. I have described how we have gradually proceeded through different stages in that way. These activities are in many ways very disagreeable activities. They uproot people's lives and they disorganise many of the instruments of our trade. They result from the impact of the war on the civilian life of a civilised community. The only justification for them is that they are necessary to win the war. That, I believe, is sufficient justification. I ask, on the one hand, for the assistance and counsel of hon. Members in all parts of the House in considering how best these restrictions may be imposed, so as to cause the minimum dislocation and inconvenience and to make the maximum contribution to victory. On the other hand, I ask for the encouraging support of hon. Members—and I believe I shall have it—for all steps which are shown to be necessary in order to mobilise the home front, so that victory may come soon, and come completely.