Orders of the Day — Statistics of Trade Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st January 1947.

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Photo of Mr David Eccles Mr David Eccles , Chippenham 12:00 am, 21st January 1947

I think many of them were thwarted by a lack of knowledge of monetary technique, a knowledge which we now possess. On the basis of a stable demand for goods and services the Government could handle the employment problem, but not unless they could rely upon a first-rate statistical service. Therefore, in principle, we do support Chapter VI of this White Paper.

There are, however, serious qualifications to be made to the outline given in that chapter of the new statistics required for an employment policy. Paragraph 83 reads like a hotchpotch of demands put forward at one of those inter-departmental meetings of economic advisers. I can imagine the scene: a long table, flanked by a dozen important and gloomy experts; each assistant secretary in turn fills his pipe, looks down his nose and states firmly that he cannot go back to his Minister unless this or that new brand of statistics is included. What has been the result? A schedule of statistical requirements of very unequal value at any time and, in the days of emergency through which we are passing, hopelessly impractical.

I only wish to pick out the worst example from this Schedule, and one which has found its way into Clause 2 of the Bill. I refer to the annual census of production. Even a partial census of production is not justified at the present time. An annual census of production is nothing new. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) were to address the House, he would certainly remind us that in 1906 the late Mr. Lloyd George looked forward to a census of production at frequent intervals. Economists have always wanted this, and no doubt they would learn much from it, and could write many useful articles if they had the material of an annual census. But the practical point is this: would an annual census be justified today when business is so abnormal and manpower is so short? The House will appreciate that an annual census of production is not an instrument of much value at a time of economic crisis. It can only be published in the autumn of the year following that to which it relates, and by its nature it can give no indication of the trends within the base year. Events are moving so fast, and action has to be improvised so hurriedly, that no additional strain should be placed upon industry which is not strictly related to the battle of production. We must win the battle of production or we shall cease to be a first-class Power.

What is the situation in industry today? Apart from the process of producing goods, the clerical staffs are up to their eyes in dealing with P.A.Y.E., and filling up other forms, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Sir R. Glyn) indicated, in this quarter of the year, in stocktaking, and getting out the accounts for 1946; and it is not consistent with the drive to get more persons into productive employment to put demands upon clerical staffs, unless the results are expected to be of the very highest value. Surely the Board of Trade realises that it is not possible for many of the firms to whom the questionnaires in regard to the partial census of production have been sent, to fill these up by the end of February? Surely, too, the Board of Trade realises that it is asking for trouble, asking for bad statistics, to put hurried demands on a firm for information which it cannot comply with, unless it alters its methods of bookkeeping? But that is the case with many firms. The Board of Trade, if it were a practical Department, which it is not, would give a year's notice to industry to adjust their books, so that they could conveniently comply with the questionnaires in the form in which the Government desire the information to be given. Experience shows that better value, for the same or less clerical work, can be obtained from the monthly and quarterly indices of the type of the Monthly Digest. I shall turn to those indices in a moment. But I put it to the Government that the practical policy in 1947 is to concentrate upon improving the sensitive checks upon what is actually happening, and to leave the census of production to more abundant days.

The Monthly Digest is good, but it could be better. We want more information than is now available, mainly for two over-riding purposes: first, to convince both sides of industry that the Government really do possess the data necessary to ward off mass unemployment; and, secondly, to enable industry and the Government to follow the use of scarce resources and to cooperate in their distribution to the best advantage. Hon. Members will agree that the indices required for these two purposes should possess two common characteristics—they should be as up to date as possible, and sensitive to change. The value of statistics is in inverse proportion to the delay between their publication and the period to which they relate. Therefore, in a time of emergency it is better to ask industry for little and often, than to ask it for more at longer intervals. That is the heart of the matter; and it really was disquieting that, in his opening speech, the President of the Board of Trade did not seem to grasp the relation between the economic crisis, revealed in the White Paper published this morning, and the difficulties of industry in getting out these complicated returns.

I should like to give the House a few examples of the kind of information which, I think, would be worth compiling as soon as we can. We want more and better figures about the consumption of raw materials, and of finished products, and that calls for a wide range of indices, of the type the right hon. and learned Gentleman described, covering work in progress, orders in hand, and stocks. It is a matter for the experts to say how far reliable indices of this kind can be maintained by sampling where sampling gives a reasonably accurate figure, it is to be preferred, in present conditions, to a national return. Then, we need more and better figures to show how the population is employed. I was glad to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman refer to Clause 7 of the Bill, which ensures that the figures for Scotland shall not be lumped in with those of the United Kingdom. A great deal more breaking down of our statistics covering the main regions would be valuable, for the employment patterns and trends in Scotland and Wales are not the same as those in the United Kingdom as a whole; and we ought to keep our statistics of employment, as far as possible, on a local basis.

We want to know the proportion of the clerical to productive workers in the major industries. For example, if we knew how many man-hours are required to deal with P.A.Y.E. it is quite possible that that tax would be seen to be bad on that score alone. We want more and better figures to show output per man-hour, and, as soon as possible, the capital invested per worker. Is it fair to the coal miner that his output per shift should be the only one we are allowed to follow? What about the output per day of the 156,000 non-industrial civil servants in Service and Supply Ministries? It would make an interesting index to have some figure to show how that immense number of people are performing their duties. I recommend it to the Government as a salutary check upon the abuse of manpower. Would anyone, except His Majesty's Ministers, deny that we need a better cost-of-living index? The present figure is a melancholy example of the way in which the Government make public and deliberate use of statistics which they know to be inaccurate. The wages of 2,750,000 workers are tied to an official cost-of-living index which stands at 132, against 134 when the Government came into office. In other words, the Government tell us on paper that over the last 18 months the cost of living has gone down. Every housewife in the country knows it is humbugging nonsense to pretend that the working-class cost of living was lower last month than in July, 1945, when peace and Socialism arrived together. Before we have a partial census of production, at least let Ministers clear up this scandal of statistical inaccuracy.

Now, I find myself in agreement with the President of the Board of Trade. I think we need to know a great deal more about the distributive trades. That, indeed, is the worst gap in our knowledge. We have no idea whether the 2,000,000 or 3,000.000 persons engaged in distribution add more or less than what is reasonable to the cost of goods when they leave the factory and the farm. If I may say a word for agricultural interests, it has long been a suspicious fact to farmers that the gap between the price of the products they sell off the farm, and the price the housewife pays for them in the shops, has been so large. It is high time that we confirmed or denied those suspicions. I do not know how much labour and form-filling would be entailed in a national census of distribution; I can well believe that we could not afford to take it in 1947, but speaking personally, I would put the need for a census of distribution far ahead of the need for a census of production.

The most important type of information that we require is one which the right hon. and learned Gentleman, in a most astonishing way, seems to have left out altogether or hardly touched upon. I mean estimates of the future; estimates of future employment, estimates of future consumption and production, and estimates of future capital expenditure. I am told that the Government intend to collect such estimates solely on a voluntary basis. I am sure that must be so, because estimates would be of no value at all unless they were collected on a voluntary basis. That being so, I want to ask the Government to consider this point: if they make industry and trade sour by asking them for too many unnecessary facts about the past, are industry and trade likely to cooperate wholeheartedly in providing estimates of the future? Yet these are, by far, the most important guides to action we can have.

Before I pass from the type of statistics which I think we ought to put at the top of the list, may I urge upon the Government that they do their very best to persuade the Dominions and Empire territories to keep their statistics on the same basis as ours? Our Central Statistical Office could probably learn a good deal from Dominion practice. For example, I am told that the Canadian census of distribution is a much simpler, much more practical affair than the mammoth rod which the Board of Trade have in pickle for our unfortunate retailers. I suggest that a meeting of experts should be arranged forthwith for the purpose of agreeing upon uniform statistics covering the major series of population, production and finance. It would be an immense advantage, not least to the Foreign Secretary when he has to speak to other Foreign Secretaries, if we had a Commonwealth and Empire quarterly digest, and I seriously recommend that proposal to His Majesty's Government.

The next question is, who should be empowered to collect the statistics? We very much dislike Clause 16, which gives 21 Ministers the power to ask anything that falls with in the Schedule. It is not far wrong to say that it allows them to ask anything about everything. The President of the Board of Trade promised that he would do his best to avoid the duplication of demands. We are not satisfied with that asssurance. We might agree that the Minister of Labour should collect employment statistics and the Ministers responsible for agriculture should collect statistics relating to farming, but why bring in all the others? We shall certainly put down Amendments to omit the other Ministers from the list. There are quite enough right hon. Gentlemen already looking through keyholes and counting other people's chickens, without bringing in a whole new platoon of Ministerial inquisitors. What is more, the best advice is against it. Industry itself has asked that the Central Statistical Office should collect the greatest possible proportion of our statistics, and I think I am right in saying that the Foreign Secretary, when he was Minister of Labour, speaking in the Debate on the White Paper on Employment, agreed with that view. That was sensible advice, and the Government are foolish to have departed from it.

That brings me to Clause 9 which as the right hon. and learned Gentleman said is designed to avoid the harmful disclosure of information collected under the Bill. We are not satisfied with this Clause, and we shall seek to amend it in Committee. We quite realise the administrative convenience of passing information between Departments, but such disclosures ought only to be made under the very strictest safeguards, and only after giving the firm concerned notice of the disclosure and an opportunity of explaining to the inquiring Department the background of the information for which they are asking. I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us when he replies whether the Government are prepared to accept Amendments designed to give effect to these widely desired and very reasonable safeguards.

If I may trespass on the time of the House for a few minutes longer, I would like to make one or two general remarks upon the nature of statistics and the reliance which Governments should place upon them. Statistics have a fascination. To my way of thinking, anyone who does not enjoy a prowl through the Monthly Digest must have something wrong with him. I often succumb to the sorcery of graphs and index numbers; I suppose that in this weakness I am in the fashion, for if I may borrow three words from my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), no generation has worshipped so uncritically as my own the "magic of averages." It is, however, right to remember that behind these well-groomed and seductive data lie the failures and successes of millions of men and women; in the Library of the House I may play with the indices, but to provide me with those toys, they, in their millions, have been acting independently, as individuals, taking risks, going slow, working overtime, changing their jobs, living out the adventure of their separate lives. Lives are not reducible to trends and averages. This morning I was riding in a bus, sitting next to the conductor, and I watched the faces of a score of passengers as they boarded and left the platform. These faces, given them by nature and changed by experience made me suddenly aware that no cold statistics could distil the essence of those gay and tired, silent and talkative Londoners, so attractive just because of their variety, and so dull when considered as an aggregate of ticket-holders. Governments are concerned with life in the round, and life in the round refuses to be expressed in index numbers and averages. It is just because we need to keep the human side of statistics in mind, that one fears so that the statisticians and economists may run away with the Bill. Of course, if these figures are used as servants and their limitations are well understood, then they can powerfully aid a government to maintain employment and make good use of our scarce resources. But if a political party were to enthrone the common factors among men and women as sovereign guides to policy, then we should curse the day when we had invented statistics and inflated these useful servants into inhuman masters.

It is just because there hangs about the President of the Board of Trade and all his works such a strong taint of inhumanity that we find this Bill dangerous. We do not like the Bill as it stands, and we are not satisfied with the assurances about administration which the President of the Board of Trade thought fit to give. We shall have to wait to hear what the Parliamentary Secretary says, and we shall certainly have to put down Amendments during Committee stage. Reading the White Paper on the economic situation, published this morning, one saw that the country is in a very serious position. We are short of houses, coal, steel, transport, and many other vital goods and services, and above all the Government is short of common sense. We all know there is no way to overcome these shortages, except by a wise use of our resources and a general willingness to work hard. We all know that we shall only achieve these things if both sides of industry have confidence in each other, and in the Government. Is it too much to ask that the Government should make their statistical service an earnest of a change of heart, of a new desire not to quarrel but to cooperate with industry? If the President of the Board of Trade were here, I would say to him that when he comes to administer this Bill, let him remember what we were both taught at school, "Manners makyth man".