Consumer Goods (Shortages)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th June 1947.

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Photo of Mr George Chetwynd Mr George Chetwynd , Stockton-on-Tees 12:00 am, 26th June 1947

One point which has not emerged sufficiently so far in this Debate, is the really searing effect of the war upon the whole of our economy. A country cannot go through the events of those six or seven years, in the way in which we did, without feeling the effects for a considerable time. It is quite beside the point to try to compare our recovery with that of Belgium, on the one hand, and America, on the other. I think we can say that, before the recent fuel crisis, we had reason to feel proud of the smooth transition which we had made from war to peace production in this country, and that there was every sign at the beginning of this year that, if things had gone on in that direction, there would have been a considerable lessening of austerity throughout this year. It was the fuel crisis in February and March which brought us face to face again with this hardship and shortage and continued austerity. But for this, the promise of better supplies in the shops, more goods on the counters, shorter queues and so on, would, in my opinion, have been a reality.

In spite of the very rapid recovery which we have made since February and March, we still feel the serious effects of that time. For instance, footwear, about which we have heard so much today, fell from 10.4 million pairs in January to 4.5 million pairs in February. Perambulators for sale fell from 59,500 in January to 36,600 in February, and the loss of production of utility furniture was from 3.9 million units to 2.4 million units. If we add those losses to the losses which are due to the shortage of labour, shortage of raw materials, increased demand owing to more wealth being available and owing to the increased birth-rate, we have some idea of the scope of the problem which the Board of Trade, in co-operation with industry, have been trying to solve since the end of the war.

One major factor must be taken into account, but there has been very little mention of it so far. It is important that we should expand our capital equipment, and devote as much of our resources of wealth and materials as we can to expand our basic industries, because, even when we are producing consumer goods, the future will be very dismal indeed. There again, we have a considerable record of which we can be proud. In 1938, we spent £308 million in new capital equipment, and in 1945 we only spent £118 million, but in 1946 we spent £493 million on capital equipment, which was roughly equivalent to the amount we had been spending prewar. From this year's Economic Survey, it is quite clear that we must devote a considerable proportion of our resources to carrying on this redevelopment of our industry, and we cannot expect, as some people wish, to devote the whole of our resources to consumer goods, if we are to succeed in the future. It is reasonably clear that units, dockets and coupons, and all the rest of these irritating necessities have to continue for some time.

I would like to refer to what is, in my opinion, the most acute shortage, at least in my own area, and that is men's clothing. It is virtually impossible to buy a shirt in the North-East, and size 15½ has not been seen for months. People have to wait something like 12 months between the order and getting even a semblance of a response. Together with the effects of the fuel crisis, the recent high level of sales in April, when coupons became available, has really denuded the shops in the North-East. There is a marked shortage of boys' wear, particularly raincoats, and a marked shortage of socks, pants, trunks and shorts. I do not know what the answer is, but, in London, one can walk into shops and buy these things, and there is a considerable increase in supplies to London as against the North-East. I am wondering if this is due to the fact that, now that there is a free market in these goods, the suppliers are supplying those firms who dealt in large quantities before the war, whereas we, in a development area, with a low purchasing power, were not able to get hold of these goods. I wonder if that has something to do with this acute shortage. I would be very grateful if my hon. Friend could look into that important point and let me know whether we are getting a fair and equitable share in the North-East. Can we have a better distribution of clothes? We admit that there is an over-all shortage, but we feel that the distribution could be a little more just.

I have received a letter from a lady in my constituency deploring the shortage of wool. She says that owing to this-shortage, the manufacturers are not now making long combinations, and, as a result, the old ladies in my constituency are suffering from rheumatism because they have to wear short vests, and so on. I do not think that we can do anything about that now. Indeed, I do not think that the younger generation would stand for it. But it is just one of the problems which the Board of Trade have to face.

I would now like to deal with what seems to be a gross misdirection of labour and raw materials. Already, there are signs in the shops of over-production of certain articles. At the end of the war, many firms in the light metal industry, who had rapidly expanded their production, changed over very quickly to peacetime production. Since then, they have been flooding the shops with all kinds of pots and pans, fireguards and companion sets with which to keep the hearth tidy, and so on. During the last few days, I have had a good look round some of the stores in London, and there seems to be a glut of pots and pans, light metal goods, certain small plastics, ash trays—as the Chancellor has cut down smoking these latter do not seem to be necessary—leather bags with zipp fasteners, and lampshades. A few months ago it may have been a desirable thing to have all these goods, but it does not help the harassed housewife to see the shops littered with them. If we are to prevent a similar situation to that which we had last winter, in regard to the over-production of electric fires, now is the time to look into the over-production of non-essential goods to see if we can divert the labour and material into-more useful channels.

I would like to deal with something which, I believe, can help us to better times. There has been a rapid expansion of factory development in the development areas, and, although in the past I have criticised the Board of Trade in this matter, I do not think they have been given sufficient credit for the. amount of new factory space and new employment which has been provided. But the whole of this development is likely to be handicapped in the very near future unless we have a real policy with regard to distribution of raw materials. I have a letter from a firm in the North-East, though not in my own constituency, which had been induced to go there to manufacture dresses, and so on. They say that in the last 17-week period they were able to book only 10,000 yards of material as against 70,000 yards in each of the three previous periods, and are faced with having to sack a large number of men and women, particularly women, unless they can get an increased supply of cloth. But they Say that similar firms in London, Birmingham, and elsewhere in areas of manpower shortage, are getting more than they can handle.

It seems-to me that, although there is a free market in this commodity, the Board of Trade could give a much more positive direction to the suppliers of this material to see that an increased quota is allocated to those firms-which have come to our aid in the development areas. I do not know what action my hon. Friend can take in the matter, but it seems quite reasonable to expect that, even if we took some cloth from firms in good areas, the labour which would be displaced as a result could easily find alternative employment. We could take up the slack in development areas and use it to increase production. That seems a right and proper thing to do. It means the reintroduction of controls, but I think it would be a worth while thing to do. Although we admit that austerity must and will continue, and we cannot see the end of it, if the Board of Trade put across their case properly the public will accept this austerity with a much better heart than has been demonstrated in the past. It should be pointed out that if we produce for export as much as we can, not only shall we survive the present shortages, but the future will be good for the majority of the people in this country.