Industrial Concentration and Retail Trade.

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

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Photo of Sir Herbert Butcher Sir Herbert Butcher , Holland with Boston

I think the Committee will have listened with great interest to the hon. Lady the Member for Frome (Mrs. Tate), and appreciates not only the great care and thought which she has devoted to this matter, but the bright advocacy she has given to the conclusions of the Committee, to which I am sure the President of the Board of Trade will give his most careful consideration. I think my right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the very fair survey he made of the problems which concern his Department. He has the very unenviable task of stripping out of the civilian economy all the labour, all the material and all the premises he possibly can. Apart from the housewife, he has under his purview the main reservoir of labour, excluding the Civil Service, which is not directly concerned with the war. He was, I think, right in directing himself to the freeing of labour and material for the war effort. I ask him to realise that many of the difficulties with which he finds himself confronted would not have reached their present stage had the Department dealt with them a little more speedily in the early days.

The record of his Department is not very satisfactory in dealing with the concentration of industry, the terms of manufacture and the terms of distribution. Let me give the Committee an experience I had in the Midlands not so very long ago. I was at a large manufacturing concern which was making small arms ammunition. We were told that a number of vacancies existed for women of any age, preferably young women. Despite the enormous exertions of the Ministry of Labour, they could not get sufficient women. The very next day I had to speak at a chain store, and over 100 people of the type desired by this factory were engaged by a private business within a stone's throw of their premises. This notice was hanging in the window: Owing to the shortage of supplies, these premises will be closed all day Tuesday and all day Thursday, until further notice. The Minister has to maintain sufficient retail output, and that is perfectly right, but he also has to do the converse and suppress, so far as he can, all unnecessary output. In fairness to old-established businesses, I ask him to consider again what has already been urged upon his Department, namely, to go back to pre-war days and examine what the position was at that time, and whether it is not possible to cause certain traders to confine themselves to the activities upon which they were engaged at the outbreak of war. He pointed out that it is his duty to free labour, and, of course, he is perfectly right. I was glad to hear him say he is re-examining the possibility of recruiting labour wherever it may be for the war effort, but the converse also applies, that all the labour left inside retail distribution must be as fully used as possible for the purposes of the war.

Again, he showed great understanding of the problems of the rural areas. We who represent the countryside are not really getting our fair share of normal consumable goods. I am grateful to him for promising to give his attention to the problem of distribution. I know that the difficulties are enormous, but they have to be faced and overcome. Having given the manufacturer a quota, they have not given him any direction as to how he is to distribute. I think the President might well consider requiring the manufacturer to divide his pre-war manufacture into categories of distribution, whether chain stores, private traders or multiple shops, whatever it may be, and then equate his war-time manufacture within those same proportions. I believe he would then be able, inside those limits, to distribute goods in accordance with the variations of population. I will not comment now on the Report of the Committee. I am sure the hon. Lady was perfectly right in pointing out that there has to be still more sacrifice and hardship endured by retail traders. On the other hand, I should not like to see too heavy a machinery set up—compulsory levy or licensing—until the right hon. Gentleman has thoroughly exhausted every other possibility.