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

I recognise that, but the implication is clear. Why should this particular group of traders be circumscribed by such a Report as this? I was anxious to avoid any opinion developing that this Report was designed to assist only the small retailer. The probabilities are that by actual experience one might find that the large departmental store or cooperative society or anybody in a large way of business would, if they desired to take full advantage of this scheme, benefit from its operation as much as, if not more than, the small retailers themselves. The Committee suggest that this is part of a system of planning the retail trade, but anyone who examines the Report at once recognises that it is nothing of the kind. It does not alter the structure of the distributive trade. In fact, it proposes to free the structure of the distributive trade and to resume after the war the position as it prevailed before by the right of re-entry.

When the President of the Board of Trade was expressing his view that he did not favour rationalisation to the extent of removing the small shopkeeper and leaving the distributive trades to the large departmental stores and the co-operative societies, he looked at me rather appealingly as if he hoped I would not contradict that point of view. It may relieve his mind to know that the Co-operative movement does not favour the freezing of the distributive trades in this way. It is a basic principle of our method of trading that it is not for the Government or the trade to settle these things, but for the consumer. It is for the citizens to decide whether they want to get their commodities from one trader or another. Therefore, we are with the President of the Board of Trade. We want the position to be open so that we can expand if the consumer desires us to expand. We have never tried to exclude anybody else from trade. All that we want is for people not to exclude us from trade.

My view is that after the war the position should be free for an extension of public and co-operative enterprise if the citizens of the country desire it. Therefore, I am against the form of freezing industry such as is embodied in the Report for it could easily develop into a kind of trade enclosure Act. We have had enough experience of enclosure in the history of this country in regard to the limited amount of land and we have never escaped from the evil consequences of that limitation. Trade is a much bigger thing than land and I am not in favour of the form of economic Fascism that wants to tie trade down to the present limits. I hope after the war, through public opinion expressing itself in political ways, to see a considerable extension of public and cooperative enterprise. I should not, however, secure that by putting anybody into a straight jacket and trying to make economic development rigid in the form that is proposed in this Report. I should prefer it to come by the general development of education and the growing intelligence of public opinion.

My further case against freezing is this: I do not consider that Government or Parliament should clutter themselves up with obligations of this character. Parliament should certainly lay down standards—standards of employment, hygiene, quality and things of that description—and if traders cannot carry the obligations of a public standard they have no right to be in trade. The conforming to obligations of standards is an entirely different thing from what this Committee visualised in their Report. In my view it cannot be carried out by first of all trying to buy out the retailer and then trying to "kid" him that his place is secure after the war. That kind of thing will lead to disillusionment, breach of undertaking and contract after the war, and will increase public irritation. We know what happens after a war. It may be regrettable, but unfortunately it was our experience after the last war. When persons have been in the Services and have been hauled away from their businesses, with their gratuities or savings they afterwards want to find some outlet. If the Government or the system of the day cannot absorb those persons automatically, intelligently and immediately into the industrial system of the country, is anybody going to tell me that we are to close large avenues and opportunities of trade to ex-Service men by a process of this kind? It is building up a form of trouble that cannot be defended.

I would like the Government to clear up a point about the levy. The Prime Minister, I always feel, gave a clear indication of the division of opinion on this matter when we were considering the War Damage Act. The Government so far have always steadily resisted accepting any obligation for personal loss, whether of business or of income or of occupation or profession, arising from the dislocation of the war. When we were considering the War Damage Bill which dealt with definite enemy action it was made clear that we could only consider compensation for war damage on the ground that it must not be the forerunner of compensation for all other types of personal loss arising from the war. In the Cooperative Movement we have made various efforts to establish a mutual aid scheme and other industries have tried to devise a method of mutual aid. The desire to assist is general throughout the trading community, but to stand any kind of success trades with limited identical interests must he grouped. If we pursued this line of compensation I am confident that the retail trades would have to be split into sections. Once they were grouped there would be a much greater prospect of success.

In the early days of the war, when some of the groups—the Co-operative, electrical and other groups—were anxious to devise some methed whereby they could come to each other's assistance if they were knocked out, the Chancellor would never give way on the question of Income Tax. The Committee in one of their paragraphs make it clear that the whole of their case stands or falls according to whether this levy is treated as a business expense. The Parliamentary Secretary ought to clear that point up. If the Government are not prepared to agree to this being a business expense, the Committee themselves apparently wash out the whole proposal. If the Government are prepared to treat it as a business expense we ought to know so that we can ascertain what are the technical differences which permit the Government to meet this proposal and not others.

The next point I wish to criticise is the voluntary character of this proposal. We leave it to individuals to decide whether it suits them to come out of industry or not, and the compensation given does not go to the individual at all. In most cases it will go to another person. This scheme is not really so much designed to assist the small shopkeeper as to assist the larger emporiums. Take the case of a big cooperative store or a large department store with a number of departments. As the ranges of goods available for sale become more restricted under the policy of the Board of Trade a store may arrange to close certain parts of its premises and merge departments, with their reduced staffs into a smaller space. In large emporiums like Selfridge's and Barker's and our huge Co-operative central premises those problems would be decided on a business basis; but each of those concerns would be entitled to come upon the fund for compensation, and it might even be to their advantage to reduce their scale of operations. Further, their properties are almost invariably freehold, and so any contributions made to such concerns do not by-pass the actual traders. But most of the small shopkeepers, for whom sentiment is so readily aroused—not with any intention of helping them, but merely for the sake of playing to the gallery—rent their properties, and the 5 per cent. contribution will only cover the rent, or will only meet insurance payments, or the cost of maintaining the property and charges of that description.

This 5 per cent. contribution which the retail trade is expected to put up will bypass the small shopkeeper and pass into the possession of concerns which normally have considerable reserves. The big building society is not to-day an accumulation of small and poor investors but in the main is made up of investors who are reasonably well to do. Insurance companies, too, have very large reserves, and the owners of small shop properties of the kind we have in mind have as a rule no difficulty in reletting them.