Industrial Concentration and Retail Trade.

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

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Photo of Major Henry Procter Major Henry Procter , Accrington

I will not take up the time of the Committee for more than a few minutes but I wish to congratulate the Retail Trade Committee, for giving us for the first time a factual survey of the retail trade position. It is very helpful to know that we are discussing to-day the affairs of a very important section of the community and that there is great national interest in this Debate and the results which may arise therefrom. Over 1,200,000 people are dependent upon retail trade for their livelihood, and we must remember that we are dealing with almost astronomical figures inasmuch as the turnover of the retail trade, in commodities other than food and drink, amounts to over £1,200,000,000 per annum. We are dealing also with matters that affect municipalities in that they depend upon rate-paying shops to the number of over 300,000 for success in carrying on our civic life and the amenities which attach thereto. I am sorry to see that in this Report, brilliant though it is in the survey it gives us, there is throughout its pages a defeatist line of thought. It seems to assume that the small retail trader is doomed to extinction. I, for one, am out to see that no action of this House will crush these men and women out of existence, for they have been the backbone of this nation and have built up the prosperity of the land. I am opposed to any political group in the House using this Committee for political profiteering. It seems to me that in essence the Committee says to those who are to be liquidated, "Go and commit suicide and then pay for your own funeral." The Report is defeatist throughout.

As to the causes of the difficulties confronting the retailers, we are told they are due to the war, but in my opinion a great many of the retailers' difficulties are due to a wrong policy of the Government in the matter of equitable distribution of supplies. For instance, with regard to the fixing of the quotas, no small retailer has by legal right any quota at all. He or she depends upon what is handed to him or her by the manufacturer as an act of grace. The large shops, the chain stores and the department stores, all with a big purse, are able to get supplies which the small retailer cannot get. There is in the Report no suggestion for helping the small retailer to get his fair share of goods. It tells him to prepare to die, not how to survive. It gives no advice how to overcome the difficulties due to the control of prices, and such impositions placed upon the small retailer by this House—such as coupons, rationing, and all that sort of thing. It takes a small retailer as long to fill in the forms and coupons sent to him by the Government as it does to serve his customers. There now descends on the small retailers of this country as much paper as falls on a New York procession for national heroes. There are all kinds of forms and almost incomprehensible departmental instructions to which he must give most careful heed, one of which I will read, and which I defy any retailer or any hon. Member to make out. It reveals the Civil Service mentality towards business affairs: Where goods are or were invoiced by a registered person who in relation to the supply of these goods is or was the agent either of the supplier or of the person to whom or to whose order they are or were to be supplied, the supplier shall be deemed to supply or to have supplied these goods to the agent, and, when the goods are or were supplied, to or to the order of the person to be supplied, the agent shall be deemed to supply or to have s applied them. That is the sort of thing which the small retailer comes up against, and yet we are told that the retailers' difficulties are due to the war. There is nothing in the Report which will help to free these little men from the throttling hold which we politicians by rules, regulations, and controls have put upon them.

I promised to speak briefly, but there are one or two points I want to put to the President of the Board of Trade in connection with the third Report. I was very pleased to hear the note of sympathy in the right hon. Gentleman's voice when he spoke about the small trader, but he will remember that in "Alice through the Looking Glass" there is the story of the walrus and the carpenter who swallowed the oysters most sympathetically—but, nevertheless, that was the end of the oysters. I want to tell the President of the Board of Trade, as he knows, no doubt, that over go per cent. of the small retail traders are against the Committee's Report. They do not want it.

There is, I know, a scheme of compensation, and I know the arguments that can be quoted by the Government against the payment of compensation from the National Exchequer, but I ask the right hon. Gentleman to look into the incidence of the figures set out by his own Committee. On a turnover of £1,200,000,000 a 1 per cent. levy will yield an income to the fund of £12,000,000 every year that the scheme is in operation. There are over 300,000 shopkeepers in the non-food and drink trades. If 10 per cent. of the shopkeepers go out of business, there will be £12,000,000 available for division among them. That is a very large amount. I want to know who is to get the difference between the amount that comes into the fund and the amount that goes out as compensation to the shopkeepers who have been liquidated. There will be far more money coming into the fund than goes out of it. What is to be done with that money? In regard to the proposed scheme of compensation; my local chamber of trade want to know what will be the position of the owner-occupier, who is mentioned in paragraph 35 of the Report. Will he receive a sum equivalent to the rent he would have to pay as a tenant, or only such sum as is necessary to cover his actual outgoings, such as fire-watching and insurance? With regard to the rent-paying tenant, who is dealt with in paragraph 33 of the Report, it is suggested that he should be permitted to leave his fixtures. Does the President of the Board of Trade intend to approach the municipalities, with a view to getting them to allow the shops to be derated in those circumstances, because under the present law, I understand that if a person leaves fittings in the shop he has to pay rates. It is recommended by the Committee that at the earliest opportunity the lease should be broken. What, then, would happen with regard to fixtures? Is it likely the landlord would allow the fixtures to remain when no rent is being paid? Who is to be paid for their removal and destruction?

There are many other questions on which the Report gives no guidance at all. For instance, what is the position of a one-man limited company whose premises are owned by the principal shareholder? Is he to receive the benefit while he occupies the house? Lastly, I condemn this Report because, if the suggestions are carried out, it will give the benefits to the people who do not require them, namely, landlords and owners of chain and multiple stores. If a large department store closes a floor, will it be permitted to continue the same number of departments in the smaller space, and, if a branch of a chain stores is closed, will the firm be permitted to buy and sell the same quantity of goods in the shops remaining? If that is the position, it will mean that the, big men, who are putting away reserves year by year to improve their competitive position after the war, will have more goods to sell because they will get the goods of the people who have gone out of business. I hope that the President of the Board of Trade will go into these matters very carefully. It is the small man who needs protection. Large stores can look after themselves. The small trader has no trade union to back him, and he is the man who is suffering. If he becomes a war casualty by State action he should be compensated by the State. The small shopkeeper is a worthy citizen and a stabilising influence in every community, and we must see that we do nothing to impair his position. We must not allow him to be crushed out of existence either in the interest of big business or of national ownership of our shops.