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 John Leslie Mr John Leslie , Sedgefield

The trend of the discussion to-day inclines me to express sympathy with the President of the Board of Trade. His is no light task with so many complicated interests to consider. The Report of the Retail Trade Committee is a case in point. In this connection I think the President has been wise in asking traders and others concerned to present their views before coming to a final decision, because he will find that there is a very considerable amount of prejudice and misunderstanding to overcome. The work of this Committee deserves our appreciation and thanks. It was no light task for that Committee to undertake. I wish personally to congratulate them on their Report. It is a constructive document that merits our careful consideration. The Report contains a basis of a planned economy of distribution, something which is decidedly essential, and something which is long overdue. For many years I have advocated a system of licensing for the distributive trades in order to protect the bona fide trader and at the same time the assistant whose livelihood is at stake. The distributive trades have for far too long been the hunting ground of the failures of other occupations, and of cut-price swindlers running shops on sweated labour, and very often on stolen goods. Many decent, honest men have been driven out of business by these interlopers who have opposed every effort to improve conditions. They were the great obstacle to early closing and the restriction of Sunday trading.

There is no denying the fact that there were far too many shops in pre-war days, and the need for a licensing system was obvious. I am glad that the Report emphasises this aspect of the case. On that very point it says: There is a growing admission as evidenced by numerous statements made to us that in peace time there has been on all sides too indiscriminate an opening of shops, and that this has led, particularly at the fringes, to uneconomic types of trading and to malpractices. This factor has undoubtedly aggravated the war-time problems with which the trades are faced and it will engage our later attention for the post-war period. In so far as any present remedies for meeting the war-time emergency begin to produce more order, they will of themselves help to lay a sounder foundation for the future. That is what the Committee's Report has endeavoured to do. The scheme outlined will, as the Report says, afford small traders who have been hard hit since the war both a present relief and a sound hope of post-war recovery unburdened by debt. If things are left as they are without such a scheme as that proposed in the Report, one of two things will be the result—many small traders will go to the wall without any compensation of any kind, or else, if they strive to exist on a diminishing volume of goods, there will be a demand for a larger margin of profit. Overhead charges remain, and having less to sell the trader, if he is to pay his way and give fair wages, must demand larger profits. That is obvious.

The blunt truth is that there exists a number of small traders who are economically unnecessary for the distribution of available goods, however sympathetic one may feel towards these helpless victims of the competitive system, accentuated as it has been by war conditions. The Committee have done their best to formulate a policy and scheme to relieve the situation. In their Report they are not unmindful of the future of these small traders who may give up business during the war. Their right of re-entry is safeguarded, and a certificate to this effect is provided for. Coming to the minority Report of one individual, I can quite understand the unfortunate position of that individual, compelled to disagree with his colleagues. But what does it mean? In fact it means that he would continue the competitive system—no restriction on the right of traders to open shops when they like, where they like, how they like, and to sell what they like. After many years of careful study of the distributive trades I am thoroughly convinced that the registration and licensing of shops are absolutely essential in a planned economy, essential in the interests of traders themselves, essential in the interests of assistants, and essential in the interests of the consuming public.