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 Alfred Barnes Mr Alfred Barnes , East Ham South

My right hon. Friend, in reviewing the administration of his Department, paid a well-deserved compliment to his predecessors for initiating the policies which we are discussing to-day, and I should like to take this opportunity of stating that my right hon. Friend has not let these policies down. His administration maintains the drive, and I should particularly like to acknowledge that his administration has, at least, forced the coal problem to a solution after two years of procrastination. I was gratified that the President of the Board of Trade was able to report the consultations he has had with various sections of the retail trade, which, in my view, have had the effect of lifting this Debate and the consideration of the Report of the Retail Trade Committee out of the atmosphere of antagonism and competition between the large stores and the small shopkeepers. From my examination of this Report, I have been impressed that this is by no means a small shopkeepers' problem; the reactions of the different sections of the trade should be reflected here, and we should all acknowledge the freedom of mind in the Government at the present moment, and put our personal experiences into these discussions to enable them to come to a wise decision.

May I follow the procedure of my right hon. Friend and comment on the process of the concentration of industry and express one or two views on utility products before coming to the main item of interest, namely, the Report of the Retail Trade Committee? Reviewing the application of the policy of concentration, and knowing how tenaciously we fight for our respective interests in trade, I think that the comparative smoothness with which this policy has gone through indicates two things. First of all, in the general trading community in the country, as elsewhere, there is a genuine desire to co-operate with the executive Government of the day in order to facilitate our internal adjustment and to secure our main national objective, namely, the winning of the war. If we had not had that very deep-seated feeling in all sections of our national life, I am certain the President of the Board of Trade would not have been able to pursue this policy with such ease. On the other hand, I should be one of the first to recognise that the President of the Board of Trade's representatives have done their part of the business wisely. They have adopted a most reasonable attitude, and in consultations they have tried to understand the difficulties. They have pursued their policies by wise adjustments, and we have obtained results which might have eluded us without that co-operation on both sides. This progress of concentration will undoubtedly be proceeded with in a more or less rapid degree, and I ask my right hon. Friend to bear these points in mind.

One of the most unfortunate experiences which owners and manufacturers find is the conflict of movement and decision of the respective Government Departments. A factory is concentrated by the Government to accomplish two purposes, to economise in efficiency of production, and to release labour for war services. If the Government adopt that attitude in a factory, it should not be requisitioned by another Government Department for some other purpose. There ought to be a clear division of responsibility and collaboration between the various Departments so that there is no overlapping. Sometimes the whole of a factory is not taken over and another Department steps in, and this causes a good deal of chaos. In the case of concentrated factories, one assumes that the residue ought to stand high in the category of priority of labour, and that problem ought to be considered. Where a firm has been considered as a nucleus firm, the Essential Work Order should be applied to that undertaking. If we could get that degree of co-operation between the various Government Departments concerned, avoiding two Departments scrambling over or interfering with the same type of work, and a measure of priority of labour, it would facilitate the position very considerably.

With regard to utility goods, I should like to urge my right hon. Friend to expedite this policy as rapidly as possible. We have to recognise that three years of war have passed before we have begun to tackle this problem effectively. In the case of boots, which were scheduled to come on the market early in June, they have not yet made their appearance to meet the public demand. I feel that in three years more progress could have been made with utility lines. The same kind of criticism of Government administration can be made in this direction. Too often a Government Department publicises what it is proposing to do long before practical consultations have taken place and the goods are available for the market. We have to recognise that the public interpret statements of Government representatives as indicating that a policy is about to be put into operation, and, if you get these statements months before practical consultations have taken place, it is unfair to the traders and annoying to the public and it tends to discount Government announcements. The right hon. Gentleman indicated that, despite a contraction of 50 per cent. in certain directions, the value had not gone down. Prices in this range of goods have more than doubled on the whole. The Government have too often allowed prices to mount to too high a figure, and then, when they come with a controlled policy, either through utility lines or some other form of control, prices having mounted to an excessive degree, it is increasingly difficult to get them down. Therefore the tendency is to stabilise at too high a figure. The President indicated a wide range of goods that he proposes to bring into utility lines. He mentioned pottery, hollowware, umbrellas, furniture, pencils, lighters, suit cases and so on. How long will it take before these lines are actually before the public? Judging by past experience, a considerable time will elapse. If it is stated that these goods are to come within the range of utility products, the Government have the responsibility of pushing on this policy as rapidly as possible.

The next question I should like to bring forward is the application of the Purchase Tax to utility products. During the Budget Debate the Chancellor of the Exchequer indicated that, with regard to clothing and footwear utility products, there would be a remission of the Purchase Tax. As the Government policy is to produce utility lines with a minimum amount of labour and with the utmost efficiency of production, it appears to me that an overwhelming case is made out that on utility products there should always be a remission of Purchase Tax. I should like to press that that policy should be pursued, and any indication by the Minister might assist in that direction. If the President finds that he is unable to cover the whole of these trades within a reasonable period, I would urge that the Department should apply its mind to a range of utility articles which might be termed essential domestic commodities. If the Board of Trade, while working out a larger policy of utility products, could take a range of articles in almost daily domestic use and requirement by the housewife, it would be very valuable indeed in household economy. A three-pint kettle which in 1939 cost 2s. 11d. costs 6s. 6d. to-day, and no one can argue that there is any justification for it. The quality is invariably inferior to pre-war. A hair broom which cost 4s. 3d. in 1939 is to-day 9s. 3d. A digging fork which cost 6s. 6d. in 1939 to-day costs 12s. Sheets per pair which cost 7s. 11d. pre war now cost 26s. and tea cloths have risen from 4¾d. to 1s.11d. Surely it is possible to take a range of articles in daily consumption and fix a reasonable figure.

It appears to me to be a wise decision of the Government not to commit themselves to the operation of the Retail Committee's Report. The President's consultation has indicated that there is a division between the large and the small trader. I do not thing the Committee need have any undue regrets if their Report is not accepted. It is no reflection on their Work. It is obvious to anyone with any experience of trade that there is a most difficult and complex problem to face with no probability of getting any measure of unanimity in the trade. The Report is certainly a valuable preliminary piece of work, but in my view the Committee should not take as a personal matter or as any reflection on their work any criticism that is bound to follow. The Report is full of contradictions, probably not because the mind of the Committee is not clear but because of the inherent difficulties of the problem they were examining. They at once recognised that you could not apply this principle to the non-food trades.