It is my very agreeable duty to congratulate on behalf of the Committee the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Linstead) for his very able and informed speech. I think that what he said has had the complete sympathy of this Committee, and we look forward in the future to hearing him again on many occasions.
I desire to keep the attention of the Committee for only a very few minutes, as there are many other hon. Members who wish to speak, and I will confine what I have to say entirely to the question of retail trade. The third Report of the Committee, which is the chief subject for discussion to-day, has in my view certain sins, but they are sins of omission rather than of commission. The terms of reference of the Committee were very wide; I do not think that they have been quoted, and perhaps I might give them:
To examine the present problems of the retail trade in goods other than food, having regard both to the immediate needs of the conduct of the war and to the position after the war, and to report.
It is a fact, as the President of the Board of Trade has stated, that there is a great lack of statistics about retail trade, but this has been largely overcome by the Committee, and in my opinion the chief value of their deliberations has been in the provision of a comprehensive survey of trading conditions which the hon. Member for Putney has aptly referred to as a very valuable social document. They have, however, missed an opportunity in their recommendations, it seems to me. As I see it, the Government have a policy for the producer and also for the consumer, but no policy or plan hitherto for the middleman. The Committee has spent a year on its deliberations, and in that time it might have produced a plan or have advised the President of the Board of Trade on a plan for the distributive trade.
The trend of their investigations has been unfortunate. They accepted too readily the idea that the small trader must go under. As medical consultants to the patient, they have spent all their time with the undertaker and no time at all with the surgeon. We are not asking, and certainly the small traders are not asking, for a decent burial. What they are asking for is an acknowledgment of the fact that their life is far from over, that they have much to give and much useful work to do. When the Government's plans come to be announced they will, I hope, include definite measures for maintaining the small trader in the distributive network on a basis proportionate to his position in that network before the war. I am not suggesting for a moment that he should be singled out for special preference above the chain stores, co-operative societies and so forth, nor that all his former rights and privileges should be retained unimpaired. We must recognise the secular trend in distribution which has been operating over a long period. But neither do I suggest that this war gives or ought to give our eager socialist planners an excellent opportunity for securing the early demise of the small trader.
The problem is, like many problems, very simple in essence but difficult to overcome in practice. Broadly speaking, there is an ascertainable production and an ascertainable consumption which is gradually stabilising, because of limitation of supplies, rationing and so on. There is a distributive and a selling force organised on the basis of pre-war conditions, subjected to heavy withdrawals of labour and very badly in need of overhaul to meet the conditions in which the flow of products has dried up to the extent of 50 per cent., or 75 per cent. Ideally speaking then, the problem is to cut down retail trade to meet this situation so that neither the small trader nor the co-operative store, nor the chain store, nor the big department store is left in an advantageous position the one against the other. The Committee on Retail Trade has failed altogether to suggest machinery for this, and it is now up to the President of the Board of Trade. It must be acknowledged that to the extent that he does not succeed in securing this equitable basis he will in the nature of things be accused of political bias one way or the other. It was, however, refreshing to hear him refer in friendly terms to-day to the small trader, and in stating the Government's policy as announced by the present Minister of Production some time ago, I think it is quite clear that the Government's intentions are, broadly speaking, to keep the present balance as it is to-day.
It should not be impossible to set up machinery on a regional basis to relate the available goods in an area to the purchasing power in that area. The President spoke to-day, when considering the organisation of the clothing industry, of treating that matter on a regional basis and of using certain designated firms and grouping industries around them. I know that the Ministry of Food is also planning its work more and more on a regional basis. Could we not have something of that sort in the distributive and selling trade? It should not be impossible to secure a contraction of distribution and of selling agencies of all types to meet the present flow of trade, with compensation found from within the trade for those who are obliged to leave it. Some scheme on those lines would, I think, help the traders immensely. At the present time small traders do not know what to do. They are subjected to economic winds of uncertain direction and force blowing about their doors; they do not know whether to remain inside and go upstairs and die or whether to go out and fight against those winds. They need Government advice because they are not aware of whether they are helping the war effort by remaining in their trades or by voluntarily closing down. Until that is made clear to them, how can they know how to act? The third Report does provide a plan to aid the small trader to overcome his difficulties once it has been decided that he should close down, and I make no complaints about the Report from that side. It seems entirely workable. I would like to see it included in toto in the recommendations which the President will have to make.
We hear remarks about the small trader being the backbone of the country. So he is, and so indeed is anybody, any group of interests which caters for an essential war-time need. It is no use to say that this or that section of the community is the backbone of the nation and that all its rights and privileges must be upheld regardless of what happens to others. What has to be said and what has to be ensured, as far as possible, is that all sections should have those rights and privileges curtailed in equal measure so that we end this war, not with our trading system transformed into a mould foreign to its nature, but with that nucleus remaining which is fully representative of all that is best in our national life in time of peace, a nucleus which will bud and blossom forth again in happier days and restore to us that freedom and scope for individual and collective enterprise which are our heritage.