Industrial Concentration and Retail Trade.

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

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Photo of Mrs Mavis Tate Mrs Mavis Tate , Frome

I said that equal distribution, if it could be arrived at, is desirable, but that it would not enable the number of traders who are trading at present to remain in trade. If my hon. and gallant Friend does not mind, I will come later to the point he has raised. I come now to the main recommendations of the Committtee's Report. One of the recommendations of the Comittee—it was a recommendation upheld by every Member of the Committee, and I think I am right in saying that most of us would not have signed the Report unless it had been a condition—was that the compulsory levy to be made on those remaining in trade should be a business expense both for taxation purposes and for every other purpose. The President of the Board of Trade said that when it was a question of its being an allowable expense for taxation purposes, it was comparatively simple, but that when it came to affecting the Prices of Goods Act, it was a very difficult problem, because it would raise the prices of the goods to the consumer. I think I have stated correctly what the right hon. Gentleman said. But I would like to assure him that, after very great consideration, the Committee came to the conclusion that that would not at all be the case, for the following reason. If there is a lesser number of traders trading, they can trade more economically. For instance, suppose that you have £1,000 worth of goods which you wish to sell. If they are in the hands of one trader, he may be able to sell them, pay his overhead charges and make a profit; but if there are £1,000 worth of goods in the hands of 100 traders, each one of them will sell the goods at a loss and not be able to pay his overhead charges. One of the arguments in favour of concentration is that it will enable the traders remaining in trade to have a larger supply of goods and sell at a more reasonable figure. Therefore, I think the Committee was perfectly justified in saying that this should be an allowable expense not only for taxation purposes but also for the purpose of the Prices of Goods Act. I hope the President of the Board of Trade will reconsider that point, because it is a practical one.

Hon. Members have said that a scheme like this would be very practicable and very attractive if it were confined to certain trades—if, for instance, the chemists were allowed to make a scheme of their own and deal with their own problems, and the tobacconists the same. But do hon. Members appreciate that if the prosperous trades are allowed to make a scheme for themselves, their commitments will be very small? If sectional schemes are allowed, an absolutely impossible burden will be imposed on those sections of the trade which are the most hard hit. In fact, it would be impossible for them to meet the levy. No friend of the small trader could really advocate that scheme if he would give it really serious consideration. There is only one possible way of working any compensation scheme, and that is that the fortunate should help the less fortunate. That is not a new proposal; it by no means initiates something that is new. In regard to this matter, I was very deeply shocked to read in to-day's issue of the "Daily Mail" that 1,000 Northumberland and Durham confectioners, after a meeting, telegraphed all local Members of Parliament requesting strong opposition to the Report in Parliament, because, they said: Small traders bitterly oppose the scheme, as unjust in principle, to tax any section of the community for the benefit of another section. Surely, the Unemployment Insurance Scheme taxes a certain section of the community for the benefit of another section which is less fortunate. Surely, the Commodities Insurance Scheme and the War Damage Act do the same thing. I think that if this is the only ground on which these people can oppose the Report, we may be satisfied that we did a good job of work. There is also a suggestion that the percentage of the levy is too high. It was impossible for the Committee to discover what sum would indeed meet the case, and we merely put forward tentative suggestions, but one thing of which I warn hon. Members—and I cannot sufficiently impress it upon them—is that each day that passes makes the position of the small trader more precarious. Whatever else you can afford to do, you cannot afford to go on doing nothing. The whole of our Report and the figures put forward in that Report were based on the belief that something would be done in the near future. Every day which passes means that the turnover of traders is growing less and that the levy which would be imposed on those remaining in trade would have to be at a higher level.

Hon. Members have also criticised the Report because it is a funeral benefit and does nothing to maintain the small trader in business. I have tried to show the Committee that a certain amount of concentration of the retail trade is inevitable, and I fail to understand how this can be described as a funeral benefit, because, if this scheme were implemented to-day, it would allow the trader, whose contractual liabilities would be met, to cease trade now that conditions are so difficult and leave his business with such capital as he has absolutely intact. I have never understood that you were able to take your capital with you when you are buried, and I hope, therefore, that that rather inept simile will not again be produced. I have also heard it said, and this is the criticism of the Minority Report, that this is only putting money into the pockets of the landlords. Does the Committee appreciate that the landlord is entitled to his rent at the present time, and that the small trader and any trader is under an obligation to pay that rent? The landlord is getting his rent, whether he gets it from the trader or from a compensation fund. We have expressly said that no trader who goes out may renew his contractual liabilities when they come to an end. For instance, if his lease comes to an end, he cannot renew it, because that would be putting money into the hands of the landlord. All our scheme suggests is that the landlord should be paid by traders, who are able to trade at a profit, the sums of money which at present he is getting from the little trader who is having to use his capital with which to pay that rent. If anyone can prove to me that that is putting money into the hands of the landlord, I shall indeed be impressed by his ingenuity.

There has also been the suggestion, and this came from many branches of traders, that this scheme was unjust and impracticable because it did not include the food trades. As hon. Members know, we were not allowed to consider the food trades, and I would not commit myself on this line, because, having for 14 months studied this question in all its immense complexities, I feel that I cannot recommend the inclusion of the food trades unless I had studied the problem. The one thing I beg of the Committee is, if hon. Members feel there is a strong case, and there may well be a strong case for the inclusion of the food trades, to press upon the President, and they believe our scheme is a practical one, to implement it at once without waiting to include the food trades, because the Committee must appreciate, if they press for the inclusion of the food traders, we shall have to deal not only with the President of the Board of Trade but with the Minister of Food, and, if there is one thing which is more calculated to delay anything being done, it is to allow Ministers to argue among themselves. I do not wish to take up the time of the Committee, but, as one who has always had a deep interest in the small trader, an interest and regard which was enormously increased the more I studied the retail trade, I implore hon. Members, whatever they think of our Report, unless they can immediately bring forward some more practical scheme—and I wish from the bottom of my heart that they could do so—unless they can do that, not to be divided among themselves, but to insist that the President of the Board of Trade shall act, and act quickly.