Utility Goods (Prices)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd November 1949.

Alert me about debates like this

10.36 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

There are three Motions on the Order Paper with reference to Statutory Instruments. The President of the Board of Trade has been courteous enough to inform me that one of the orders has been revoked by him by a subsequent Statutory Instrument. It would be a waste of time if, indeed, it were in Order, to discuss that order, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will indicate which of these orders is the one concerned.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Ormskirk

The hon. Member said, "It is No. 1600, is it not?" to which my answer was, "Yes." I should have thought that that indicated the Utility Cloth and Utility Household Textiles (Maximum Prices) (Amendment No. 2) Order, 1949, which was revoked by order laid before this House on 15th October last and which came into operation on 26th October.

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

I would not wish to proceed on that order. I desire if I may, in moving the next Motion, which is No. 1608, to discuss also Order No. 1599, dealing with utility apparel, as the point on both orders, as on all three orders, is precisely the same.

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

I am sure it would be for the convenience of the House to take these Motions together.

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 25th August, 1949, entitled the Utility Footwear (Maximum Prices) (No. 2) Order, 1949 S.I., 1949, No. 1608), a copy of which was laid before this House on 27th August, be annulled. The subject of these orders was first raised in this House in a statement which the President of the Board of Trade made shortly before the House rose for the Summer Recess on 28th July, 1949. It was a longish statement, beginning at Column 2,690 of the OFFICIAL REPORT. The right hon. Gentleman there indicated his intention to make a number of orders, of which the two with which the House is now concerned are only, I think, a fairly small proportion, reducing among other things the margins to which, under his price-fixing orders, retailers were to be entitled on the sale of certain categories of utility goods. The principal part of his statement which is in my view, wholly relevant to the issue now before the House, occurs at Column 2691 of the OFFICIAL REPORT. He there describes, if I may say so completely accurately, the effect of these orders: The changes will mean lower gross margins for these utility goods than has hitherto been allowed, and will probably necessitate a reduction in costs which may take the form of smaller staffs and curtailment of services to the public. We were told that the orders giving effect to these changes would come into force early in September. Then, and I ask the House to mark these words, the right hon. Gentleman said: I have been unable to consult the trade associations concerned as has been usual before substantial changes were made in controlled prices."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th July, 1949; Vol. 467, c. 2691.] Two days later, the House adjourned for the Summer Recess, and the right hon. Gentleman departed on, I have no doubt, a well-earned holiday in, I believe, the South of France.

There was naturally some reaction in the trades concerned, and in his absence, the right hon. Gentleman's unfortunate Parliamentary Secretary had to deal with the matter. When he returned, he had some discussions with, at any rate, some of the trade organisations concerned; but it is abundantly clear that he did not satisfy them as to the merits of these proposals or of their justice. On 20th October, shortly after the House resumed, I asked the right hon. Gentleman a Question on the subject of these discussions, which is reported at Column 737 of HANSARD for that date.

The particular point with which I would trouble the House is a supplementary question, in which I asked the right hon. Gentleman if he had succeeded in satisfying the people with whom he had the discussions that he was treating them justly. The right hon. Gentleman replied: If the hon. Member who I noticed engaged himself in some activities on this subject during August, is asking me whether I received full agreement from all the interests concerned in the discussions, the answer is, of course, 'No, Sir.' If I had had to wait until I got agreements we should not have got these reductions probably for two or three years."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th October, 1949; Vol. 468, c. 738.] That, I think, is a rather ungracious comment for the right hon. Gentleman to have made about trade organisations with which his department had been in consultation on a number of previous price changes.

I pressed him farther and said I had not asked if he had obtained agreement—a fact which was well within the knowledge of every Member of the House—but whether he had satisfied the people with whom he had had discussions that he had treated them justly. He gave no answer, but the answer so far as some of those people are concerned was given last month at Cardiff when three resolutions were passed and sent to the Prime Minister by the National Chamber of Trade. The first referred to the arbitrary manner in which the President of the Board of Trade had treated the traders concerned, and the third asked that he should be removed from his appointment. When a section of the community—and whether it is right or wrong is no matter—has a sense of rankling injustice, it is right and proper that hon. Members should discuss the matter in this House. From the point of view of the people concerned, this matter should be raised, apart from the fact that it also gives the opportunity for the right hon. Gentleman to put his side of the case.

I want to deal with two points; first, the method, and, secondly, the substance of these price reductions. As to the first, the right hon. Gentleman, in his original statement to the House, said it was impossible to discuss the matter with any of the bodies concerned. In previous cases discussions have taken place, and no one knows better than the right hon. Gentleman that in the highly complicated circumstances of the business of retail distribution injustice is imposed unless one first goes into the facts with the people intimately concerned. That is what the right hon. Gentleman and his predecessors previously did. The right hon. Gentleman has not yet told us what the urgency was which made the normal procedure inapplicable in this instance.

We are here talking of the end of July, at which time His Majesty's Government had not made up their minds to devalue the pound. What, therefore, was the urgency of the matter? The only circumstance which might have given a little urgency was the fact that the Trades Union Congress was meeting in the middle of September and it was desired to strengthen the hand of the Prime Minister in his not very successful appeal to them. I do not know, but perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will tell us, what the urgency was which prevented the right hon. Gentleman having the normal discussions.

I am sure that he will appreciate that, particularly where he is going to inflict substantial hardship on a section of the community, it is all the more important that their minds should be properly prepared by proper discussion in advance, so that they could not only be certain that what the right hon. Gentleman was doing was a serious attempt to deal with a serious problem, and that it was not the arbitrary act of an ignorant Department. That is how the matter will strike people if there are not preliminary consultations. I am not saying whether this is a right or wrong impression, but I am saying it is an inevitable impression.

The object of these orders—the reduction of the retail profit margin—is an admirable one, to which hon. Gentlemen opposite pay lip service with great frequency. The object is, of course, the reduction of the cost of living, and in view of the way in which it has risen in recent years it is obvious that, even belatedly, the right hon. Gentleman should apply his mind to it. The question is whether, in pursuing this admittedly laudable idea, the right hon. Gentleman has taken a wise or equitable course. The consequence, the deliberate consequence, of this action is to reduce the earnings of the retailers. We are dealing here with the retailer who deals in utility goods, and, therefore, it is a reduction in the earnings of the small retailer a large proportion of whose turnover consists in utility goods.

I am not suggesting that these orders will give the slightest discomfort to the large scale multiple stores such as Harrods or Fortnum and Mason's. The people it affects are the substantial number of small retailers in the poorer areas, who rely for the greater part of their earnings on the sale of utility goods. The object of the orders is to reduce the earnings of these people. It reduces the price, but in order to do so there is a reduction in the earnings on which those people live.

That is a marked differentiation in the treatment of a section of the community by His Majesty's Government compared with the rest of the community. As I understand it, the policy of the Government is to freeze incomes and to hold money wages at their present level. That is their declared policy as regards the rest of the community, but with respect to this section, the right hon. Gentleman, by a deliberate act, inflicts a reduction of income. It seems on the face of it, and I think he will agree it seems to the people concerned, to be unjust to discriminate in this way and to impose this selective reduction on this one section of the community.

These small shopkeepers have to share in the inevitable hardship caused by the general rise in the cost of living. On top of it they are to have inflicted upon them a reduction in their income. The right hon. Gentleman in his statement suggested that they should deal with the matter, in part, by a reduction of staffs. It is interesting to see that the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting the creation of a certain degree of unemployment, which I did not know was his declared policy. That suggestion is clearly made because nobody knows better than he does that the non-mobility of labour because of the housing shortage will make it difficult for the persons rendered redundant to find other employment within reach of their homes. The position might be different if housing were tackled in other areas, but the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well the brake that absence of housing imposes upon the otherwise highly-desirable mobility of labour.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Ormskirk

Is the hon. Member really suggesting that if shop workers were displaced in Birmingham or Manchester or even in Kingston-upon-Thames, that they could not find work locally without having to go and seek houses in other parts of the country?

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

The right hon. Gentleman challenges me upon the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, and I say this. If, as a result of this Measure, a substantial number of workers in the shopping centre of that town, which is a very large shopping centre, were rendered redundant, they would have the greatest difficulty in finding alternative work, in particular since the Minister of Supply permitted Messrs. Leyland to remove their works from that part of the world. The right hon. Gentleman has selected a singularly unfortunate example for his argument. He has also not addressed his mind to the fact that many shopping centres, unlike the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, are remote from industry, particularly, for example, in the coastal towns. If he suggests that the displaced shop assistants in Bournemouth or Brighton find it particularly easy within reach of their homes—

Photo of Mr Victor Collins Mr Victor Collins , Taunton

Can the hon. Gentleman say whether he made it his business to inquire in the last two months if there was any considerable advance of unemployment in Kingston-upon-Thames arising from this Measure, or if there was any at all?

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

The hon. Gentleman, if he studies the order, will appreciate that it did not come into effect until 26th September which is about five weeks ago. If he has practical experience, of business, as some hon. Members have, he knows perfectly well that it takes some months for an order of this kind to take effect.

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman did not address his mind to this aspect of the matter. Many of the people con- cerned, the small shopkeepers, the people actually hit by this Measure, have only one assistant. They cannot divide that assistant up into sections and get rid of one section. The one shop assistant is one and indivisible and they have to paralyse their business by getting rid of him or carry the loss themselves. [An HON. MEMBER: "Hear, hear."] I am sorry the hon. Gentleman opposite should say, "Hear, hear," to that. That is not an admirable way to refer to people who earn their living by their own efforts at a difficult job and in these days when the policy of the Government, which he supports, has inflicted hardships upon every section of the community. It ill becomes the hon. Gentleman to sneer in that way at one section upon whom hardship is inflicted.

The right hon. Gentleman seems to think that the one way to deal with this matter was to get rid of staffs. It may be possible at the cost of service to the public, of increased cost of man and woman hours, by waiting in queues for long periods, which could more profitably be used elsewhere. In the greater number of cases, it is not feasible to dispose of the limited staffs concerned, and in fact the result will be a net loss in income to the retailer concerned.

Photo of Mr Richard Sargood Mr Richard Sargood , Bermondsey West Bermondsey

The whole of the hon. Gentleman's argument is based on loss of income. Is he seriously suggesting that there has been a falling-off in the sale of utility clothing as a result of the orders?

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

I think the hon. Member has not fully appreciated the effect of the orders, which, I think, he has not got in front of him. The effect is not to reduce directly the amount of utility clothing sold. It is to diminish the percentage on each particular utility article which the retailer is entitled to retain. Therefore he will appreciate that on the same turnover a reduced income results. I hope I make myself clear.

The method the President of the Board of Trade has seen fit to adopt in pursuing the admittedly praiseworthy idea of seeking to reduce the cost of living would be more tolerable to the people concerned if it had been applied less narrowly. It contrasts very oddly, for example, with the trading methods em- ployed by the Government, who have done nothing to reduce their profits. The Minister of Supply raised the cost of nonferrous metals within 24 hours of the announcement of devaluation to the extent of 30 per cent. and set an example in this respect.

Nor have the nationalised industries, who are perhaps even more to blame because they sell directly to the public, done anything of the sort to reduce their income. On the contrary, gas and electricity charges have been raised; and if the Government are making a sincere attempt to reduce the cost of living by cuts in the cost of articles that the public buy, it seems a little odd that they should have gone out of their way to impose these sacrifices upon one section of private trade, while the nationalised industries they control are acting in a precisely contrary sense.

It is this contrast between the treatment of the retailer and the behaviour of the Government in every other sphere of our economic activity which I believe has given rise to a good deal of the sense of undoubted injustice which exists. The people concerned feel that they have been picked on by the Government for unexplained reasons for sacrifices which the Government have not imposed on anybody else. It may be because they are a section of the community that cannot strike, that serves the public in little businesses of their own with their own capital involved in them, and therefore that obviously cannot strike without ruining those businesses. Whatever the motives of the Government, there is a feeling that the selective treatment of these people by the Government has been a mean and shabby business and it undoubtedly leaves behind it a sense of rankling injustice.

10.59 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Hutchison Mr James Hutchison , Glasgow Central

I beg to second the Motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-on-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) has so admirably covered the ground that I propose to say very little. I want, however, to express, the disappointment that trade and industry have felt about the way the Minister refused to consult the associations concerned. The disappointment is all the greater because the Minister was showing evidence of realising the importance of consulta- tion. Indeed, that method of treatment was fortified by the Prime Minister's remarks only the other day about the trade associations entering into consultations with the Departments concerned, and that he should have dropped his enlightend ways by this action has caused great disappointment. When associations are formed and have at their disposal the facts and figures and the effects of actions likely to be taken, it seems the height of stupidity for the right hon. Gentleman not at least to listen to their views.

If that is important in England, where the Minister has quite ready at his disposal certain information, in Scotland it becomes all the more important through the differences in trading methods and customs. It is just that sort of cavalier treatment, that violent action taken without considering the effect that will be caused, that has inflamed and is inflaming Scottish opinion at the present time. That is the only new facet which I have to add to what my hon. Friend has so ably expressed. I beg the Minister, if he is going to take similar action in the future, to see that Scottish interests are consulted beforehand.

11.2 p.m.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Ormskirk

The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) has raised two main points—first, the method by which this operation was put through and the alleged lack of consultation, and secondly, the substance of the orders which are the subject of our debate. I would remind the House that the orders which we are discussing are only those relevant to the retailers' and wholesalers' margins on footwear and on utility apparel. They do not cover at all the orders relating to the reductions in manufacturing prices.

The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames has taken objection to the fact that I announced these cuts in the House immediately before the Recess, without previously consulting the trades concerned. I want to repeat—and perhaps this will deal with the point raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Central Glasgow (Colonel Hutchison)—that the special action taken on this occasion does not in any way detract from my general desire to deal with these matters by consultation. I am really amazed at the ten- derness the two hon. Members have shown on this question of failure to consult the traders concerned before making an announcement in this House, because I am sure that if I had gone right through the whole gamut of consultations—and that would have taken months—before saying anything in this House, some hon. Members opposite would have risen and said, "Why did you not tell the House before you consulted the traders"? It would certainly have been a long job.

As I have already pointed out, the House will realise—and I am sure the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames realises—that our powers of price control have normally been used in the past for preventing price increases, as far as possible, or for bringing prices down in individual cases where costs had fallen. On this occasion, however, the powers are being used to bring down both costs and prices when, in our view, they were excessive, in a large-scale operation over an unusually wide field. I feel it therefore right to tell the House that this was the intention of the Government. The complaint seems to be that before I told the House I should have got into some sort of huddle with all these trade associations, but the hon. and gallant Member for Central Glasgow and some of his hon. Friends, only two nights ago, told the House that the clothing trade covered such a wide range of interests, covered so many businesses and trade associations, that it was impossible to have a development council to speak for them.

Photo of Mr James Hutchison Mr James Hutchison , Glasgow Central

But the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we never said it was undesirable to consult them. All we said was that the result of his consultations was all wrong.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Ormskirk

Perhaps if there had been a development council it would have been possible to consult the whole trade in one operation. The point I was trying to make was that with this large number of trade associations—I think the figure of 25 was mentioned—with the manufacturing side, the wholesalers and the retailers organisations and the special Scottish organisations and all the rest of it, it would have been quite impossible, in anything like a measurable period of time, to have consulted all of them before coming down to the House and making this announcement. The hon. Gentleman has used the word "consultation," but to a good number of people in the trade it means something quite different to the meaning he was putting upon it. What a lot of them mean by it is that I should not have proceeded in this matter until I had got their agreement.

There has been, I think, a good deal of humbug in the past two or three months about my failure to consult. Suppose for the sake of argument I had been able to call a mass meeting of all the trade associations concerned. I should probably have had to take Caxton Hall to do it, like the hon. Gentleman and his friends. Supposing I had put these proposals before them. There could not have been any question of agreement in my lifetime or the lifetime of the hon. Gentleman. I have experienced negotiations for several months on the price change of a single commodity. How could we have got agreement? I am certain that most of the associations would have said they had not the power to agree and that they would have to go to their regional bodies, local associations, or individual constituents; and was the House of Commons not to be told until all this process had been gone through?

To suggest that I tried to do it without any consultation at all is, of course, misleading, because in answering a supplementary question by the right hon. Member for West Bristol (Mr. Stanley) after my statement in the House, I made it clear that I was expecting representations from the trade, and said that I or other representatives of my Department would be glad to consider them. In fact, deputations were received by myself and my Parliament Secretary from the retailers, the wholesalers and the manufacturers. It took quite a number of meetings to get round these bodies. It was made plain to those deputations that the decision to make the reduction of 5 per cent. must stand, but that within this decision the views expressed and the suggestions put forward would be taken into account in deciding how the reduction would be spread among the retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers. It is common knowledge that we considerably amended the form of the tentative proposals in the light of their comments, and it was only after discussions that we could decide what would be a reasonable division of the burden between the retailer, the wholesaler and the manufacturer. So much for the question of consultation.

The second point raised by the hon. Gentleman was whether the order itself was fair and reasonable. "Wise and equitable" were his words. Clearly hon. Gentlemen opposite cannot be opposed to a reduction in the price of household textiles and clothing. The hon. Gentleman associated himself with that laudable desire, and the fact that the Tory Party has plastered the hoardings of the country with lavish promises about the cost of living suggests that one essential element they would have to tackle sooner or later is the level of distributors' margins as well as manufacturers' profits.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Ormskirk

I am quite sure—in fact I remember from the Debate in July—hon. Gentlemen opposite as well as those on this side of the House decided that further measures were necessary even before there was any question of devaluation being considered.

This led the hon. Gentleman to suggest, while agreeing with the objective of reducing prices, that it was unfair to do it by margins on the retailers. He suggested that the retailers were being unfairly treated, and were in fact being picked upon. He did not produce any evidence that this is a harsh measure. I know a lot of figures have been bandied about in the national Press and at the jamboree of the National Chamber of Trade at Cardiff recently. He is in close touch with them, and I am surprised that he did not bring out those figures.

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

I am in no more close touch with the National Chamber of Trade than I am with any other organisation which writes me a letter.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Ormskirk

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman addresses mass meetings of every organisation which writes letters to him. [Interruption.] I am in somewhat close touch with the National Chamber of Trade, but not as close touch as hon. Members opposite, and I have not yet gone talking politics to them in the Caxton Hall. It can usually be found that if there are any people who imagine they have a grievance, some Tory M.P. will be there helping to fan the trouble, quite apart from whether the particular grievance is of such a kind that exploitation of it is contrary to the promises of his own party.

Referring to this Caxton Hall meeting, I was not there, of course—except in spirit—but I have been able to read a fairly full account of it in the "Manchester Guardian," and there is a subheading in that paper, "M.P. Fans the Glow." It says that the hon. Gentleman was unprejudiced, of course, but that everyone would agree that the basic cause of rising prices was the fantastic level of Government expenditure. It goes on a little about the question of timing, and says the hon. Gentleman "fanned the glow which was appearing in the hall." He quite rightly, and I am obliged to him for it, pointed out that the protest should be carried to the limit of the law. He did not suggest that anyone should go beyond the law. But he then used some rather inflammatory phrases, and the report goes on to say that at this stage the meeting proceeded to get out of hand. It does not use those words; that is my paraphrase.

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the only moments the meeting showed signs of excitement was when the right hon. Gentleman's name was mentioned

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Ormskirk

It was after the hon. Gentleman's appeal to them to carry the protest to the limit of the law, according to this report, that the meeting got completely out of hard—it must have been the eloquence of his oratory—and they passed a resolution calling on traders to go to the point of breaking the law and of calling a national strike against these orders. I know the hon. Gentleman did not propose anything of the kind, but it is clear that he got them worked up to such a state of excitement—

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

The right hon. Gentleman is carrying what I thought a piece of pleasant badinage to a rather more serious point. May I assure him that not only did I use the words "within the law" with some emphasis, but that the amendment to the original resolution which did recommend carrying the matter outside the law was put, and I understand carried, some time after I had left the meeting? It is right to one who, whatever his views on the right hon. Gentleman, does insist on the law, that that should be on record.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Ormskirk

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman had been there when such an amendment had been moved, he would have used the full force of his oratory against it. I have already pointed out that the hon. Gentleman did in fact make that qualification about the limit to which these protests should be taken, but the fact still remains that someone at that meeting, and the "Manchester Guardian" seems to pay the full tribute to the hon. Gentleman, was fanning the glow and getting these shopkeepers to the point where they were passing more regrettable resolutions.

It is a fact that they seem to have forgotten all about the general strike since the order came into force, and I think the hon. Gentleman and I would welcome that fact. So far as I am aware, it is being loyally carried out, but I do not think that is any fault of the National Chamber of Trade and of that meeting which the hon. Gentleman addressed that evening. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) referred to my contacts with that body, but of course the National Chamber of Trade has been playing politics for a good many years, and the fact that its, so far as I can see, permanent chairman is Sir Walter Womersley, the former Tory member for Grimsby, might perhaps be one of the reasons.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the effect of these orders has been unfair to the retail trade, and although he did not put it in the same extravagant words we get from leading members of the National Chamber of Trade, he rather suggested, as others have suggested, that our policy is based on some hostility towards the retail trade. We are always being told that the retail trade has suffered unduly over recent years by what this Government has done and that this is the last stage in a whole succession of crushing burdens we have put on them. As some suggest, though I know the hon. Gentleman did not suggest it, it is part of the policy to put them out of business and existence.

I should like to remind hon. Members that the facts simply do not bear out the suggestion that this Government has been treating retailers badly. They should recognise that the shortages are due to circumstances which the Tory Party would not remove, because in "The Right Road for Britain" they said they would not do so. Retailers have been involved in more trouble and difficulty than in pre-war years, but there is no doubt that as a body retailers have prospered far more under this Government than ever they did even in the best pre-war years.

The retailers' prosperity depends on the purchasing power of their consumers and under this Government we have not seen the tragedy of hundreds of small shopkeepers closed down in the depressed areas. This can be proved by figures. Among every class of shopkeeper, with the exception well known to the House of pawnbrokers and back-street moneylenders, the number going bankrupt has been only a small proportion of what it was in even the most prosperous pre-war days.

I should like to give the figures of failures in the retail clothing distributive trades which the hon. Gentleman suggested I am "picking" on. In 1938 there were 241 bankruptcies and 238 deeds of arrangement in the clothing retail distributive trades—479 failures in one of the most prosperous years before the war. In 1948 there were 26 bankruptcies and three deeds of arrangement, giving a total of 29. So that in one of the most prosperous years under the administration of the party opposite there was something like 16 times as many failures in the retail clothing distributive trades as there were last year.

I do not see anything in the Government's treatment of retailers to suggest that anything we have done up to now has brought depression and harsh burdens on them. The hon. Gentleman has not brought forward any figures to suggest the effect of these orders on the retail trade. We have had fairly full discussions with the trade, and I think the trade would be the first to agree that we amended our tentative proposals in the light of our discussions. Therefore, not only can I call with confidence on the House to reject the hon. Gentleman's Motion, if he is going to press it to a Division, but I tell him that I cannot for the life of me see why he chose to raise it tonight.

11.20 p.m.

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

I think the Debate tonight has been well worth while, even though the hour is late and there is an Adjournment Motion which may be of great importance to large numbers of people. The President of the Board of Trade took some credit for the fact that the number of bankruptcies among retail distributors had been conspicuously smaller than it used to be. I do not want to go into a long argument upon the reasons for that, but I think that in fairness it should be recognised that if it is true, as we have been repeatedly told by Cabinet Ministers, that some two million of our people are now employed because of American aid, then the retail shopkeepers have two million customers upon whom they can rely, who are paid for by American money.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Ormskirk

The hon. Member is trotting out this particularly hoary one. I think he will realise that the need for the loan, not only for this country but for others, was due to balance of payments difficulties. Will he explain why it was there were so many unemployed and so many bankruptcies when the country had no loan?

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

If it were in Order to develop that argument, I should be prepared to do so, but I take it that it would be out of Order. It seems to me, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if the President of the Board of Trade makes a dogmatic statement of fact that there are so many fewer bankruptcies in the retail trade, and that this is due to wiser Government action, that it is surely fair and relevant to point out that his own colleagues, not excluding the Minister of Health, in a burst of candour, said that two million people would be out of work if it were not for the American loan.

Photo of Mr Denis Pritt Mr Denis Pritt , Hammersmith North

The hon. Gentleman has stated that several Cabinet Ministers have said in the House—

Photo of Mr Denis Pritt Mr Denis Pritt , Hammersmith North

—that several Cabinet Ministers have stated that but for the loan there would be two million unemployed. One rather foolish non-Cabinet Minister having made that statement, I put down a Question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the House, and asked for an estimate. I extracted, after considerable difficulty and shuffling from the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the assurance that there was no ground for any such statement.

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

That is most interesting. As to which are the most stupid Cabinet Ministers, I bow, to the knowledge, of the hon. and learned Member. It is true that someone who was once a Cabinet Minister, and who, indeed, was in the War Cabinet, namely, the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Arthur Greenwood), in a Hammersmith by-election, which took place in a constituency alongside that of the hon. and learned Member, said that there would be three million unemployed but for American aid. That is true. But the Lord President of the Council—and I hope I am in Order in reminding the House of these facts—said some months ago in Manchester that there would be two million unemployed; and the Minister of Health, in a statement never admitted by the right hon. Gentleman, was more modest and put the figure at 1,500,000. But I take it that we are none the less all agreed that but for the bountiful and shrewd generosity of the American Loan, we would have an unemployment problem. Having mentioned that, I will get back to these orders.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Ormskirk

Is it not clear, from the speech of the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) tonight, that it would be the policy of the Tories to have both Marshall Aid and unemployment at the same time?

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

I listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Chippenham. He is entitled to speak as much as he likes for himself. [Interruption.] I suppose it must come as a surprise to a party which has such drastic discipline within its own ranks that occasionally people are entitled to make their own speeches, on our side of the House, in their own way. What I understood my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham to say was that it would be better to have half a million unemployed this year than three million next year. That, to me, seems to be a sensible statement of fact, although under a good Government, there would be no need to have either alternative. As we are largely tied up with the American economy—and it is to the United States that the working population as well as the retail traders owe a great deal—we should not, I think, go into questions about what the bankruptcy figures would be if there were no American aid.

But it does seem to be a very good thing that we should discuss these orders briefly. There are a great many of them, and if they were discussed at enormous length, there would be no time for any other Parliamentary Business. Let us remember that the average citizen, of whom it is welcome to notice the Government are becoming increasingly conscious as the Election draws near, is more intimately affected by these statutory instruments than by anything: else. The ordinary citizen may not know—probably does not—that the rationing of his clothes, his food and his fuel is effected by statutory instrument very often; but our procedure allows us to discuss them only at this late hour.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames moved a Prayer against three orders, and I hope that the House will not forget that only because of a chance remark by the President of the Board of Trade did we realise that one of these orders had been withdrawn. That, surely, shows the handicap under which the trading community, quite apart from the most diligent Members of this House, have to suffer. I try to read the two thousand odd statutory orders which come out every year—it is about that number—and it happens to be one of my particular responsibilties so to do; but I had not realised that Order No. 1600 had been withdrawn and replaced by Order No. 1920. If I cannot keep pace with all this, how can the traders? [Laughter.] I see nothing very funny in that. I happen to be an M.P.; the traders have to earn their own living—[Laughter]. Hon. Members opposite, who seem to think everything so funny, must surely realise that what I mean is that the traders have to look after a business as well as read and understand all these orders. Now, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, the amended order to which reference is made, No. 1920, and which, to be in Order I must link with Order No. 1600, because a Prayer is put down for the annulment of Order No. 1600.

Photo of Mr James Milner Mr James Milner , Leeds South East

No, I understand that the question of the first Motion does not arise. The order has been withdrawn, and cannot therefore be discussed.

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

Order No. 1600 has been withdrawn, and Order No. 1920 has been substituted; the explanatory notes are understandable, but the rest of the Order is incomprehensible, and I hope will be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny later.

In general, I think it is agreed by all that the cost of living must come down; and that applies to the nationalised industries, to coal, transport, gas and electricity, and we welcome any efforts to reduce the cost of living. But our objection here is that the cost of living is being reduced through these orders by reducing the earnings of one section of the community alone. It is unpalatable to hon. Members opposite, but this is something which does play an important part in our national economy.

Our second objection to these price reductions is that they have been brought about without any proper consultation with the industry. Nothing has emerged from this Debate which has altered our view that the right hon. Gentleman could have carried the industry with him had he had proper consultations. In one and the same sentence he talked contemptuously about getting into a huddle with industry—as if that were not one of the duties of the President of the Board of Trade—and a moment later he talked of conferences with deputations which if they had happened before, might have prevented a great deal of misunderstanding.

I do not want to prolong the discussion tonight, but these are three orders out of many, and we shall have other opportunities to examine this principle in detail. These orders are now in operation and to revoke them would cause a good deal of confusion in retail distribution. We are sensible of our responsibilities in this matter. We know that there are other orders which we are watching carefully, and though we do not propose to divide the House tonight against the orders, we shall watch most carefully any future orders of the same kind.

Question put, and negatived.