Mr. Robertson (Streatham)
On 1st May, 1942, it became illegal to make or sell free style suits of the fashion that had prevailed throughout the ages. It became necessary that suits should have not more than three pockets, should not be double-breasted, that jackets should have not more than three buttons and the waistcoat not more than two pockets; the trousers could not have flaps or pleats or turn-ups and there were several other minor irritations. This interference with the liberty of the subject was not debated in this House, and was not decided upon by any Act. It was brought about by delegated legislation. The Statutory Rule and Order is signed by Mr. Overton and it is on one half-sheet of paper, and yet it materially affected the habits and customs and the dress of every male, from youths to aged persons.
I am reminded of a play which appeared in New York a year or two before the war. It was entitled "I'd Rather be Right." It was a skit on the Administration of the day. The late 2211 George M. Cohan, a really great actor, took the part of the President. He was depicted as receiving citizens of high and low degree, who put all manner of crazy notions before him in regard to improving the government of the country. In response he did a little "jig" and sent for his shorthand-typist, and in the fashion of one about to dictate a letter he said, "Take an Act"—an Act of Congress which would become the law of the land. The audience laughed uproariously. It was a great farce. But that is the kind of thing we have been doing in this country for about three and a half years as a result of delegated legislation. I do not suggest that all delegated legislation is bad, because a great deal of it is right, but the matter I am raising is an example of those things that are not right, and it is not an isolated example. Someone in another Department—not Mr. Overton; it may have been a Mr. Jones or a Mr. Brown—wrote an Order that closed down the ice-cream industry overnight. Another man in the same Department wrote a Regulation on a half-sheet of paper which over-ruled the most important Act which we pass in any year, the Finance Act. It took away from one section of British industry the right to pay Excess Profits Tax, and the right to some return of Excess Profits Tax payments at the end of the war.
About this time the Germans were storming the gates of Leningrad and Moscow. We were fighting grim battles at Jedabya and Sidi Rezegh, and in the air and on the sea. The fuel trade had been taken away from the Board of Trade. The export trade had taken itself away. That may be one of the reasons why the Board of Trade officials felt that they should embark upon a scheme of this kind, but embark upon it they did, and they produced these war-winning orders. It is really marvellous what the long-suffering public in this country will stand in the name of winning the war. Anything less useful for winning the war than this I cannot imagine. The object was to save labour and materials. I put it to the Parliamentary Secretary, is he in a position to say that this scheme saved any labour and any materials.
Does the right hon. and gallant Gentleman take into consideration the vast army of officials of his own Department who have been actively concerned with this scheme, with the committee meetings that have been held with officials of the various organisations, and all the other endless work and publicity entailed in endeavouring to get this scheme into being.
The retail clothiers have to study the public from year to year and to know what are their likes and dislikes. They were not consulted at all. They did not believe in the scheme, but they loyally co-operated with the Board of Trade to try and make it a success. Time went on, and it was quite apparent that the scheme was falling very far short of expectations, both in regard to the saving of labour and material and, particularly, in regard to sales. The retailers' fears were well founded. The goods were not selling in the shops. The only man who would buy one of those suits was the man who was obliged to have a suit. Anyone who was used to having four pockets in his waistcoat to hold his pen, watch-chain and diary found it very difficult to get used to two pockets, he would have to carry his fountain pen horizontally in a jacket side pocket and probably find it leaking. But in October, 1943, a conference followed the annual general meeting of the principal trade association, the National Association of Outfitters, when Mr. Leonard Lyle, a very prominent and experienced outfitter and a past official, addressed the following question to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, who was present. I am quoting from the Association Report. Mr. Lyle said:If we were all merchant tailors or bespoke tailors we should not, perhaps, be concerned about the removal of the austerity styles, but as we are the sellers of factory-made goods to a very large extent we are very anxious to know what would happen if there was a sudden reversion to pre-war styles. We do hope you will give us a sufficient period of grace so that we shall be able to clear our stocks of austerity styles before the public are allowed to order just what style they like. It is a point which is troubling a lot of outfitters to-day.In reply, the President said:I have noted with interest the points Mr. Lyle has made and I will be very happy indeed to have further discussions with any of you whom you may care to appoint to come to the Board of Trade. I know you do not want any sudden change in the austerity restric- 2213 tions. I am sometimes pressed to make changes in regard to some of these restrictions, but I know I should not have your support if I gave way without giving you reasonable notice. Quite clearly we ought to consult together continuously, and I shall be most happy to make sure, through these consultations, that you are not confronted with short notice, for which you are not properly prepared, as it would be most unfortunate if you were suddenly left without due notice with stocks of goods which had lost their popular appeal and were unsaleableOn the strength of that assurance from a very high Minister of the British Government, the trade continued loyally to cooperate with the Board of Trade against their better judgment, and they laid in stocks. As the House is well aware, in these very difficult days for getting supplies, retailers cannot afford to live from hand to mouth. They are bound to place substantial orders with wholesalers or manufacturers, and they continued to do so, heartened by the clearest possible English words, uttered by the President of the Board of Trade, that if a change did take place in austerity styles, reasonable notice would be given to them. What is reasonable notice? In a trade of this nature it is not less than six months. Men, generally, feel the urge to buy a new suit when the sun begins to shine and overcoats are left off. Tradesmen buy new suits according to the wear and tear of their particular job. The pledge given by the President of the Board of Trade was not kept. The trade officials got seven days' notice. The announcement was made in this House on the 25th January of this year and, on the 18th January, officials of the various organisations were called and told this was about to happen and they were pledged to secrecy. They were told that they were not to say anything about the proposed change even to their Members of Parliament.
That was 18th January. On 25th January my right hon. Friend made his public announcement in this House, and you can just imagine the amazement and the resentment felt by these loyal citizens in the men's clothing trade. It is not only the big store, it is the little outfitter's shop and the medium outfitter's shop, from one end of the country to the other—people who were imbued with the high ideals so often expressed by my right hon. Friend the 2214 Prime Minister in his noble speeches and by other Members of the Government. You can just imagine their dismay when this announcement was made. Of course, the public rushed to buy free-style suits. Every bespoke tailer in this country is full up with orders, but the unfortunate austerity stockholder is in a very bad way indeed.
We are told that the reason for this sudden change was that the Secretary of State for War had decided that soldiers, on demobilisation, should get a free-style suit. Nobody would support that more than I. I do not think there is anything too good we can give these men, but I think they will want a job and a home a little bit more than they will want a suit. I think that a fellow who has lived in a battle-dress for some years will not worry very much whether his trousers are turned up or turned down, or how many pockets there are in his waistcoat. However, that is the reason advanced by my right hon. Friends. Much as we all want this dreadful catastrophe to come to an end quickly, I do not think the most optimistic among us can see demobilisation just round the corner, and I should have imagined, in a war of this complexity, where we need the most complicated tools for victory, it would have been a simple matter to give an order to manufacturers to make these free-style suits and to put them on the shelves with moth balls and leave them there till the boys came home. That however was the reason advanced in this House on 25th January for the complete betrayal of these stockholders of austerity garments and the complete reversal in the method of making suits.
What were the known facts at that time? The first is, that austerity suits produced no worth-while saving in labour and materials. Possibly, in the earlier days, there was some saving, but in the later days there was not. I am quoting from my right hon. Friend when I say that. He was actuated by that motive, although he did not publicly say so in this House on 25th January. Bespoke tailors in this city made demonstration after demonstration proving that free-style suits can be made—and I am certain my hon. Friend the Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. Doland) is in a position to support what I am saying—without any more cloth than these austerity suits. The other known fact was that austerity suits were not selling freely. Manufacturers 2215 were not fully employed. Wholesalers were not fully employed. It needs no imagination to realise that if you check the trade at the retail end that check is going to run right through the whole machine, and that is what happened in the clothing industry. These were the known facts, and, although I am sorry to say it, I am bound to say that the excuse that this sudden change was made because of soldiers being demobilised is not correct. I cannot help feeling that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is riding out on the back of the returned soldier. He is attempting to get out of a rotten scheme. Instead of coming to the House and saying, "I have made a mistake; I take full responsibility for it, and I will do my utmost to make amends," which would have been the honourable course, and a course that would have commended itself to me, and, I imagine to most other Members, he put forward the other excuse.
At that time the public and the retail trade were told that if they wanted to buy these austerity suits, they could have them for cash and 20 coupons, but if they wanted the free-style suits they could also have them for cash but would have to give 26 coupons. Those experienced retailers who had not been consulted at all in the beginning, until this scheme was a fait accompli and had been pushed down their throats, went through their organisation to the Board of Trade, to my hon. Friend and to my right hon. Friend and to the Director-General of the Clothing Department, and told them that this coupon abatement was not an attraction because people valued coupons in the same way as they valued money—value for money and value for coupons—and that 20 coupons was no attraction to buy one of these abortions. But the President knew better. It has not been his duty to serve the public all these years, but he said: "There will be no change. These suits will go at 20 coupons." Naturally, my hon. Friends who were associated with me in a Motion in regard to this sequel—200 of us—were very reluctant to raise our voices at that time. We did not want to come to this House and say that which I am compelled to say two months later. We did not want to cast any doubt on the possibility of selling these suits. We did not want to plant the impression in the mind of the buyer 2216 that if he waited a week or two he would get the suits for 13 coupons. But the retailers told the President that these suits would not sell unless the coupons were reduced to 13, and, probably, they would not sell unless the prices were reduced. But no attention was paid to that. The "brainstormers" at the Board of Trade knew far better than those tradesmen. The trade implored the President to reduce the coupon value, but it was of no avail.
On 1st February, which was the first day of this scheme, some retailers slashed their prices at once. They advertised terrific reductions. They sold for half coupon value and, in that connection, if you sell a utility garment for half coupon value, you have to sell it at half price. I am going to prove that the only people who have moved stocks substantially are those who have done that, those who have deliberately lost their money. It may be that some of the bigger firms are only losing money belonging to the State, but that is wrong too. It may be excess profits in some cases, but not in the case of the little man. He has had a rough time ever since the war broke out. He has no background of finance; he is unable to cut to 13 coupons; he is unable to reduce to half price. The bigger people, of course, with their advertising facilities, have been able to make some progress but the record throughout the country, and I have spent hours studying certified returns from hundreds of retailers from Kirkaldy in the north to Portsmouth in the south, from West Wales to Grimsby, and the record is the same everywhere, that austerity clothing is not selling unless the price is slashed and half coupons taken; and if half coupons are taken it means there are no replacements. If a retailer sells a suit this week, he has to sell another suit next week, to pay half his rates, rents, wages and other overhead. Here they are selling stock at a loss, and they cannot get a replacement of an adequate number of coupons if they sell at half coupons. If they sell at 20 coupons the Board of Trade have a scheme whereby the traders can get 26 coupons to replace the stock sold with a free style garment. The President of the Board of Trade realised that this trade was suffering grave hardship as the result of this broken pledge, and he came to the House on 15th February, and said this, among other things: 2217I have also arranged with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply that with a view to relief in Europe, he will make further purchases of men's suits from traders who hold stocks surplus to their requirements."—(OFFICIAL REPORT, 75th February, 1944; col. 20, Vol. 397.]At first blush that seemed a very generous gesture. The reading of these English words left no doubt in my mind. I thought "It is all right. These fellows will get out. They will not make profits"—I see my right hon. and gallant Friend is smiling. It may be a matter of amusement to him, but I can assure him it is not a matter of amusement to the victims of the broken pledge, who are among his constituents, as they are among the constituents of all of us.
§ Captain Waterhouse
That is a most unfair remark. The hon. Member has no right to make an imputation of that sort, and to say that I was smiling.
The last thing I would ever do would be to make an imputation which is not justified, but it did appear to me that my right hon. and gallant Friend was smiling. Goodness knows, I do not want to prevent anyone from smiling, but this is serious. In a few moments I shall read a letter from one of my constituents which will make my hon. and gallant Friend realise how serious this is. Those were the words of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. A day or two later I discovered that these words did not actually represent what was happening. All they meant was that the Ministry of Supply were going to take, at some time, the stocks of austerity style garments made in utility cloth which were in the hands of retailers. There are thousands of garments in the hands of all the retailers up and down the country that are made in austerity style but with non-utility cloth. On these, retailers have paid Purchase Tax amounting to one-sixth. They are garments made, in the main, from better quality cloth and made in a much better style.
From this statement it would appear to be transparent that the retailer was to be relieved of his trouble, although he would get no profit—and all he is asking and all I am asking is that he shall get his money back. But in spite of the Minister's statement that the Minister 2218 of Supply would make further purchases of men's suits from traders who held stocks, that is the actual, miserable fact, that the non-utility styles are still the sole burden and responsibility of these afflicted retailers. I referred a few moments ago to a letter from a constituent of mine. It is from a firm established in Streatham over a century ago. The present head of the firm is of the third or fourth generation of the family. The firm is on the main Brighton road, in the centre of the "golden acre" of shopping. He wrote to me on 5th February, and said that the number of garments, and their cost, which he had in stock, were as follows: Three-piece suits, 148, which cost him £640; two-piece suits, 12, which cost him £43; jackets, 208, which cost him £445; and trousers, 156, costing £159, a total in austerity garments, counting three-piece suits and two-piece suits as one garment, of 524, with a total cost of £1,287. I asked him on the telephone—
§ Mr. E. Walkden
What is his total stock in the whole of his store, apart from what the hon. Member has just quoted.
§ Mr. Walkden
It is very important. The hon. Member has quoted exactly what austerity garments this retailer had in stock. I take it that they were austerity, garments to which the hon. Member was referring? Will the hon. Member tell us precisely what this retailer had in stock in his store in the aggregate.
I think that would be abusing the time of the House. The heading of this letter shows the business to be "Tailors and Colonial Outfitters, School Outfitters, Hosiers and Shirt Tailors." I think hon. Members would have grave reason to find fault with me if I said that he had 1,429 collars, 740 handkerchiefs—[Interruption.] These all come within the ambit of the title of the firm.
I have given the total of the kind of stock to which I am referring to-day, made in two kinds of cloth, utility and non-utility. These are the only stocks of clothes a man can legally have in this country. I asked his firm by telephone to let me know what their stock was. They wrote on 3rd April:As requested by you on the telephone this afternoon, our total sales for the two months are as follows—six three-piece suits"—that was out of 148—one two-piece"—out of 12—22 sports jackets"—out of a total of 208 jackets—24 pairs of trousers"—flannels, etc., out of 156. That is a very small percentage. Spring is passing, his chances of selling are lessening, and unless the Ministry of Supply or someone else comes to his rescue, there is not much hope for him.
I have a statement here which I will not go into in detail—I know the House dislikes figures—but I must use some of it to substantiate the claim I am making, which is based solely on the fact that these goods are not selling. It has been prepared by the largest of the trade organisations, the National Association of Outfitters. It shows that in utility cloth austerity style three-piece suits 75.9 per cent. remained unsold on 27th March; two-piece suits, 71.3 per cent.; jackets, 80.3 per cent.; trousers, 85.1 per cent. In non-utility three-piece suits the percentage unsold was 87.4 per cent.; in two-piece suits, 76.9 per cent.; in jackets, 71.4 per cent.; and in trousers, 85.4 per cent. That is the statement compiled from several hundreds of returns, not selected returns, of retailers and outfitters throughout the country as at 27th March.
§ Mr. Loftus (Lowestoft)
There is one phrase used by my hon. Friend which I would like to get clear. He referred to non-utility suits in giving percentages just now. Did he mean non-utility cloth or non-utility suits.
I was reading from a document. It may be a little difficult for hon. Members to get this point. The infliction by the Board of Trade is one in regard to style. That is called austerity style cut. It can be made in two different grades of cloth, one utility, which 2220 is not subject to Purchase Tax, and the other non-utility, which is subject to Purchase Tax. The suits made from utility cloth are cheaper than those made in better cloths, which are non-utility cloths. That is the statement of the National Association of Outfitters, taken from several hundred retailers.
I have a statement from the bigger people, the large stores like those we know in London, and of which there are one or more in all the provincial towns. This is a cross-section of 50 sent in by the Retail Distributors' Association to the Board of Trade. I have a copy in my hand. These people, with their fine premises, finance, purchasing resources, and so on, had an unsold stock of non-utility three-piece suits—that is the kind which the Ministry of Supply are not taking—of 85.7 per cent. after the first month of this scheme, that is at 28th February; 88 per cent. of the two-piece suits in stock remained unsold; 98 per cent. of the jackets remained unsold. I wonder if these facts are as terrible to other hon. Members as they are to me? Firms like Harrods and Selfridges are so badly stuck in the selling season, that they have 98 per cent. of jackets unsold, 90.9 per cent. of trousers unsold, 85.7 per cent. of three-piece suits, and 88 per cent. of two-piece suits made in non-utility cloth. That is a result of advertisement and price reduction so far as non-utility cloth is concerned.
There is rather a different picture as regards utility garments, which they slashed in price and reduced to hall coupon value. The figures for these are, for three-piece suits, stock reduced to 41 per cent—[Interruption.]—my hon. Friend will probably not be so enthusiastic when I reveal to him some of the details as to how that 59 per cent. sale was effected. In the first week only, before the Ministry of Supply rescue scheme came on the scene, these 50 retailers sold in total 1,254 three-piece utility cloth suits for full coupons, but they sold 2,133 for 13 coupons and at half price—more than two-thirds—
Obviously if one sells goods for half price and half coupons, and these goods cannot be replaced by an equal quantity of stock, it must harm either them or the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Even so, I have given the most 2221 favourable figures. Now I will give some which are not quite so favourable. These great firms have 65 per cent. of their non-utility cloth austerity style trousers unsold, although they sold over 1,057 for full coupons and 1,830 for half coupons; 91.6 per cent. of jackets are unsold. They sold 500 for full coupons and 142 for half coupons. That statement bears out the contention of the retailers, which they made over two months ago to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, that if the coupons were reduced to 13, there would be some chance of selling these goods, but that there is very little chance indeed of selling them at 20 coupons.
I come to another and very important point which concerns all of us. These austerity-style suits were made at a time of great shortage of labour and materials. Many of the men and women who were employed in the manufacture of them could have been in the Forces, but were deferred for this purpose. Precious coal was used to drive the machines and to heat and light the factories, and to drive the transport to carry these things up and down the country. I submit that, at that time of great difficulty in this country, these suits were made for British men, and that they should go to the people for whom they were made. If the Board of Trade will face up to the realities of this situation and down-point to 13 coupons, I believe the whole of these suits will be sold, not at cost, but with a profit to the retailer, to help him to carry on. Of course, the trade are grateful to the Ministry of Supply, but they would like the scheme extended to take in non-utility as well.
Where are these suits to go if they are not sold to the retail customers? They have, first, to go on the shelves, with the moth-balls, because there is no relief in Europe for which we can use them. When the day comes—and may it be soon—they will be handed to the Belgian peasants, the Greeks, the Norwegians, the Frenchmen, the Dutchmen, and all the rest of the suffering people of Europe. But I think it would be in the national interest, and in the interest of those people too, if they got clothing made specially for them. It would be in the interest, also, of the British taxpayer and of the British artisan. Everyone who knows these countries knows that the traditional gar- 2222 ment of the men in these countries is different from ours; the climate is different from ours. If we have to look after these people, let us make something specially for them. I mentioned that the retailers who are making free-style garments are full up with orders. I know one firm which has 4,000 free-style garments coming forward next week, and these are all sold in advance. That means that precious materials and labour, similar to those which were used to make these unwanted and unsold goods, are going to be used again, when my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour is so desperately anxious for all the man-power he can get. It is quite wrong that the looms, the machines, the transport, and the labour should be used now to make garments that are not necessary. These stocks are lying here, in these austerity styles, in sufficient numbers to clothe our civilian population for months to come. I am sorry that it is my misfortune to have to speak at this length and at this time, but the matter had to be ventilated here, and I only hope that it will attract greater notice outside this Chamber than it is getting here to-day.
It is suggested by the Department that you cannot down-point these suits to 13 coupons, although they will not sell. I do not think there is any doubt that if down-pointed to 13 now they would sell, but the Board of Trade may resist down-pointing until these suits really become quite unsaleable, for every day that passes means that more people are getting free-style garments, and the more unlikely it becomes that these garments will be sold. The British man has to be tempted to buy these suits, and the way to tempt him is by down-pointing, and perhaps by a price reduction. It is suggested that if that were done the public would become possessed of more coupons than the Board of Trade would find it convenient for them to have. That is a point, but I do not think it is a very serious point. I have gone to a shop myself to buy underwear and it has not been available, and I have had to do without, or to go to another shop. It does not seem a substantial point, because if this proposal is accepted, the Board of Trade will get 13 coupons for every one of these unsaleable garments, but if the scheme of the Ministry of Supply comes into being they will get no coupons at all and another great volume of free-style suits will have to be turned 2223 out, at the expense of material and labour which we can ill afford. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said recently that he had never claimed that this Government did not make any mistakes. That was a splendid admission to make, and we all know that it is true. We also know that the Government have a very proud record, and all of us in this House except my friends of the Independent Labour Party and a few others have been very proud to support the Government in their magnificent efforts to carry on this war successfully. But the Government have made mistakes, and this is one. It is one that they can put right to-day by down-pointing these suits to 13 coupons, and by saying to the traders, "Do your best to sell these suits, but if you are left with any austerity suits, jackets, or trousers, in utility or in non-utility cloth, they will be taken off your hands by the Ministry of Supply." In that way the Government would redeem a promise which has been broken, and would render a service which is due to little men, who are very seriously embarrassed financially.
§ Mr. Loftus (Lowestoft)
I listened with interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson), and it seemed to me that in the latter part of his remarks he was a little inconsistent_ He condemned the idea put forward by the President of the Board of Trade that many of these suits should be utilised for the populations in the liberated countries, and he urged that they should be sold at the cheaper rate of 13 coupons to our own people. Two or three times he said that our own people should have these suits, yet a few moments later he said that these were "unwanted garments, unsaleable garments."
I am afraid my hon. Friend has misunderstood me; probably the fault is mine. I meant that they are unwanted at 20 coupons. The President of the Board of Trade realised that they were unwanted at 26 coupons, and he brought them down to 20. I had the privilege of seeing him, with a deputation of my hon. Friends, some of whom are here to-day, and we pressed that on him. He said that we were looking to the future, which was unknown. The evidence which I have been able to give shows that the big people, who, have been 2224 able to slaughter prices and to accept fewer coupons, have suffered less then the others.
§ Mr. Loftus
That may be; but I feel that the idea of utilising these austerity suits, in utility cloth, for clothing the people of the liberated areas is a very fine idea. I disagree with my hon. Friend's argument that we should make special suits after these areas are liberated. We shall be so busy here that we could not afford to do that The need for clothing many of these wretched people will be urgent. They will be only too glad to welcome these austerity suits. But I support the plea of my hon. Friend that the traders who have stocked these suits, in good faith and on the assurance of His Majesty's Government, should be insured against loss. It is almost a matter of good faith. I know that in my own constituency many quite small shopkeepers have come forward to point out that this sudden lifting of the ban on free-style suits has left them in a, very unfortunate position, stocked up with austerity suits, which they do not think they can sell for 20 coupons. My right hon. Friend may say, "Let them try to sell them." That is all right, provided that they have some assurance that any loss sustained, especially by the small trader, will be made up, perhaps later on, by reducing the coupons or by taking away the surplus stocks for use in the liberated countries.
§ Sir Waldron Smithers (Chislehurst)
Does my hon. Friend defend the point of view that, because of an error of judgment by the Board of Trade, small traders, who have their capital and their coupons frozen, should be quite kindly allowed to sell the stock at half-price and half coupons, and thus bear a personal loss.
§ Mr. Loftus
I am afraid I failed to make myself clear to my hon. Friend. The whole point of my intervention is to beg my right hon. Friend to give an assurance that this loss—and it is a heavy loss for some of these small men—will not fall on these traders and that, by some means or other, and in various ways, they will be relieved of this financial loss, either now or in the future, and that is the only reason for my intervention.
§ Sir W. Smithers
The sole reason for the loss is an error of judgment on the part of the Board of Trade.
§ Mr. Loftus
I agree. I think the austerity suit has been an unfortunate incident. I think legislation should not be indulged in just for the sake of small items of economy. These austerity suits have a minute sale, if any. It was a futile and rather fantastic attempt at economising. It looked as if someone had been out to economise and had drawn up this scheme, not to make a real economy, but to create the appearance of economy. I hope the Minister will be able to give an assurance, especially for the small man, that they will not have any heavy loss.
§ Mr. Guy (Poplar, South)
I say, quite frankly, that the suits are not worth 13 coupons. To relieve the trader, as my hon. Friend says, they ought to be given away free. I will give an example. Will any hon. Member of this House suggest for one moment that this suit which I am wearing is worth 13 coupons? If so, I fail to understand their intelligence. I suggest that it would be far better to say to the shopkeeper and the traders, "Get rid of the stocks as soon as you possibly can, and, to anybody who has not got one, give them away free." The hon. Member who raised the question of these suits lying about in the shops has done a public service. I think it is all wrong to suggest that 20 coupons should be delivered up for these suits. I support the hon. Member's original plea. I ask the Minister seriously to consider this suggestion an discuss it with the trade. I think the Minister ought to come to the real point and let people have the suits free, so as to get rid of the stocks.
§ Mr. Craik Henderson (Leeds, North-East)
I think we all appreciate the very cogent remarks of the last speaker—
§ Mr. Henderson
—and the demonstration, but I want to make the point right away that this is not an ordinary case of traders suffering a loss through an ordinary trade risk. The loss is due to the action of a Government Department. I do not want to embitter controversy on this subject at all—anything but that. I want to appeal for the sympathy of the Minister that something should be done. A pledge was given—on that there can be no dispute at all, because it was given in the most unqualified language, and at a meeting of the traders themselves. I 2226 do not think for one minute that the Minister will dispute that. It would be a very interesting subject to pursue—in what circumstances a Minister is entitled to go back on his pledge. I have not the slightest doubt that the Minister considered he was justified in doing it, but I think the House will take the view very seriously that a Minister has a duty to the country to fulfil his pledge, if that is at all possible, and that if, on the very rare occasions when public circumstances justify it, he breaks his pledge, then it is his duty to see that the people who relied on that pledge are compensated for any loss that arises as a result. I do not think that anyone will dispute that proposition.
In this case, there is no doubt of the loss which the trade has suffered. We may dispute or argue as to the number of suits lying about the shelves of the retail traders, but nobody has exact figures. What is certain is that it is a very high percentage indeed. Of those that have been sold, many have been sold by the traders at very considerable loss. For example, the utility suits previously sold at 89s., were sold by many traders at 47s.—much below the price at which they purchased them. There is this further point. By half-couponing the stock, they have, in addition, lost those coupons, because the Board of Trade will only replace up to the 20, and the difference will not be replaced. In the case particularly of the small trader, whose capital is tied rip in his stock, and who has no reserve of capital at all, it is a very serious position for him indeed to see his shelves stocked with goods which he cannot sell, and where he cannot afford, as the big outfitters can, to advertise extensively and sell at half-price. He cannot afford to do that, and he is left in the very unfortunate position of having his shelves stocked with his capital. I ask the Minister to give very sympathetic consideration to the very severe hardship inflicted on thousands and thousands of traders of all kinds, small and otherwise.
As I have said before, and this is a very important point, this is not an ordinary trade risk which the ordinary trader is bound to face. It is a risk due to the action of the Board of Trade, and I submit most strongly that there is a duty on a Government Department in these circumstances to do everything they can to minimise the loss. Even in the cases where the goods have been, or are to be, 2227 taken over by the Ministry of Supply, there will be a loss, because, obviously, no trader can possibly hope to survive, as the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) has said, if he engages to sell after six or eight months, at the same price that he paid for the goods. It would mean that trading would come to an end. One does appreciate what the Minister has done so far, to some extent, to minimise the loss, but in my submission and that of many other hon. Members, he has got to go further. I do not object to what he has done up to the present. There was, perhaps, an error of judgment in believing that, at 20 coupons, the stocks would go, but he was quite entitled to say "Give it a run and see what happens." We have had two months, during one of which these non-austerity garments could not be sold, and at the end of it we have got these large stocks still on the shelves of the traders. I do suggest to the Minister that he has got to think again. It has been proved that, by down-pointing the suits to 20 coupons, that the stock is frozen, and, quite obviously, that is not an advantage to the country. Quite obviously, it is to the national interest that this quantity of stock—100,000 suits, 200,000 or whatever it may be—should go into the pool and be used against coupons. There is not a surplus of supplies in the country to-day. It is quite contrary to the national interest that you should have 100,000 or 200,000 suits on the shelves, even if they are not entirely satisfactory to my hon. Friend, though that applies particularly to the utility suits. In a great many cases, I think it is agreed, that the non-utility suits are perfectly good suits.
§ Mr. Henderson
I said the non-utility suits. The point is that the utility suits sell for 89s., but the non-utility suits of austerity design may be selling for anything up to 14 guineas.
§ Mr. Henderson
That is what I am arguing. They are, but the public will not buy them, and the point is that we have to persuade the public to buy them. There are two or three methods that can be used. First, the trader can slaughter 2228 the price. You cannot expect a small trader, who pays 10 guineas for it, to sell the suit for four or five guineas. He cannot afford to do it. The other way is to down-point them. That seems to be, in the interests of the trader, the Government and the nation, the most satisfactory thing to do, and I submit to the Minister, with all sincerity, that he really must reconsider this subject sympathetically. This is a loss to which his Department has materially contributed. We want these stocks to be used. The nation should not have hundreds of thousands of suits of clothing, which are required to-day, frozen on the shelves of the traders. The Government must devise some method of getting them into circulation, and I submit to the House most strongly that the simple method which, though it will mean a loss to the trader, will meet the situation to some extent, would be to down-point them to 13 coupons. I appeal to the Minister to deal with that plea most sympathetically.
§ Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)
If ever a Debate wandered all over the place in a few minutes, this one has done so. If we take the views expressed by the four speakers, it can truly be said that the Minister has something very difficult to answer in the various arguments put forward. I prefer, however, to stick to the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) who raised this issue. I believe he was factual and honest in his approach. I would not question his figures, although I do not think they were complete, but I do believe that he grossly exaggerated the position in which we find ourselves to-day. One would think that we had an abundance of supply of raw materials, and that the President of the Board of Trade, from now onwards, should set out to encourage everybody to make use of their clothing coupons, and buy as many suits as they could acquire for the coupons which they have collected. I leave out the argument of the hon. Member for South Poplar (Mr. Guy), because I noticed that the suit he exhibited to the House, however it may be described, is not of austerity design—
§ Mr. Walkden
Whatever it may be, some tailor violated the law to sell the hon. Member the suit, but I am not reporting it.
Mr. Deputy-Speaker: (Mr. Charles Williams)
That is not a point of Order, and the hon. Member cannot use a point of Order to make a second speech.
§ Mr. Walkden
I only mention that so that the Parliamentary Secretary should see the whole thing. It is clear that, whatever my hon. Friend calls it, I he suit is definitely not a suit of austerity design. Therefore, we can leave the argument where it is, because there is no definite evidence in it.
§ Mr. Hutchinson (Ilford)
Is it not precisely the objection to the regulation that it is not capable of being fairly enforced.
§ Mr. Walkden
The Order at that time laid down certain rigid regulations. The complaint of the hon. Member for Streatham was that, when the Order was originally made, there was no consultation with retailers or with outfitters. There were collaboration and consultation for weeks with the manufacturers, the wholesalers and the Government works before the regulations were decided upon. It is not fair always to say that somebody in Whitehall, or at Millbank, sits in an office and decides how we shall be dressed. It is not true. I know, and the hon. Member for Streatham and the hon. Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. Doland) know, that there were advisory committees and consultations and that all the best brains among the manufacturers in the country were available to the President of the Board of Trade, and that he consulted them before the Order was made.
The statement which I made was one of truth, that the retail clothiers, whose duty it is to serve the public, have not been consulted by the Board of Trade, and I submit that they are the people most directly concerned because they come into contact with the public, and most of them have been so all their working lives.
§ Mr. E. Walkden
I am not arguing whether they should have been consulted. All I am saying is, as the hon. Member for Balham and Tooting knows as a representative of the trade, that consultations took place—
—and advisory committees were available to the Minister, who made full use of the advice they gave to him long before the Order was made.
§ Mr. Doland (Balham and Tooting)
The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) was correct in saying that the bespoke tailor was not consulted.
§ Mr. Walkden
That is a simple point which is really not worth arguing. What is the discussion about? Is it about people going bankrupt? Are these small retailers going bankrupt.
§ Mr. Walkden
Can the hon. Member produce evidence of any one man who during the two months this Order has been effective, has had to file his petition in bankruptcy? There is not a piece of evidence to that effect anywhere in this country.
§ Mr. Craik Henderson
Is it the view of the hon. Gentleman that we are only entitled to raise this question where loss has been sustained by the business community owing to the statements and actions of a Government Department, when they have been reduced to bankruptcy.
§ Mr. Walkden
I am entitled to answer the arguments that have been put forward—in the main, in a distorted fashion—in my own particular way, and I am trying to do it. The rescinding of the austerity Order or the introduction of the free-style arrangement was due to the War Office and the Minister of Supply in determining, some weeks ago, to issue free-style suits for men demobilised from the Forces. When the hon. Member for Streatham suggests that that was not the reason, I would suggest to him, in reply, that he knows very well that that was the determining factor, even if it was not the whole of the case of the President of the Board of Trade.
Take the position as it was. The agitation of the retailers began over a 2231 year ago, and was to the effect that this particular Order was in itself unsatisfactory and unfair and that the public would not buy the suits The women have accepted the costumes and dresses that were offered to them. The designs were undoubtedly smart. The best brains in the country were made available for the designs. I went to a fashion parade where ladies' dresses were on show and I was very pleased with what had been done. As far as austerity dresses are concerned the trade and fashion designers and everybody concerned co-operated in such a manner that our women throughout the land are very pleased with the results, though there were one or two slight adjustments here and there they would have liked to have been made. But the men were not satisfied. What were the objections of the men? The first thing was in respect of pockets, and the next thing, the question of turn-ups. I kept a close check myself on Members in this House who were really buying suits, or were presumed to be buying suits, of austerity design. My hon. Friend the Member for South Poplar has exhibited a suit and I have no doubt he asks us to assume that it is an austerity suit. I have not observed a Member in this House wearing a suit of austerity design except the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher). I am not offering the hon. Member a testimonial, but the truth is, there was cheating on a colossal scale, there were violations of the Order, and the bespoke tailors were not playing fair.
§ Mr. Walkden
I accept that correction, but there were many who, if they were not driving a tank through the Order, were playing ducks and drakes with it in every way, shape and form for months. The agitation went on and on. The manufacturers produced the suit, the wholesalers sold them to the retailers, and the retailers had the suits on their shelves. I make no apologies for mentioning to the House that the demand for clothing to be issued to demobilised soldiers began on the Floor of this House, and I remember asking some four or five Questions myself. A suit was exhibited in the tea-room. It was "cheap and nasty," and it proved that, whatever the shape of things to come might be for the 2232 demobilised soldiers, the suit which was being offered—that monstrosity of a suit—was not good enough. In consequence, certain people at the War Office, advisers and technicians and people responsible for, what they called, the recruitment and demobilisation department, were, I believe, unanimously of opinion that some additional change would have to be effected. Side by side with this agitation, the President of the Board of Trade was being jockeyed into a peculiar position. He said he was not proposing at any time to make any changes whatever, but, as the hon. Member for Streatham said, that if he proposed to make any change he would give a sufficient period of warning of any fundamental changes to be introduced. The Member for Streatham rightly says that he did not give that warning. He was forced into the position—and he told the House so—by the War Office. Does the hon. Member for Streatham maintain that what the President of the Board of Trade told the House was not true.
I do not want to attempt to make a second speech. I will rely on the OFFICIAL REPORT and whatever I have said I will stand by.
§ Mr. Walkden
The argument of the hon. Member, as I understand it, was that he wished to inform the House that the information given to the House by the President of the Board of Trade was not a proper report of the circumstances which had forced him to rescind the Order. I believe myself that as far as the President of the Board of Trade is concerned—and when he comes to reply the Parliamentary Secretary will speak for himself—that that is exactly what did happen. I suggested to the Secretary of State for War that he should make certain changes, and I am very proud of what has been achieved by the trade itself, in regard to the scheme for demobilised soldiers. They are not only good suits; they are a good rig-out. Whatever the hon. Member for Streatham may say about a job and a home for the soldier after the war when the soldier steps into "civvy street" and becomes John Citizen from now on he is assured of a good suit, and he will feel a dignified citizen, such as the hon. Member and I want him to feel. The argument of the hon. Member arises as a result of that decision. What does he say? The 2233 President of the Board of Trade reduced the coupon value to 20 points and the hon. Member says that it should now come down to 13. But the President of the Board of Trade says, "Try and get rid of the suits as far as you can," and I believe he has also told the trade that he is prepared to review the position in the course of a few months. I have no factual details of this but I believe that that assurance has appeared in the retail trade journals. Does the hon. Member for Streatham really believe that the shops are not selling these suits—these monstrosities? I use the term "monstrosities" because I think that some of the suits are of monstrous design—
The hon. Member has asked me a very plain question. I obtained the greatest possible evidence from trade associations and correspondence, and I say again emphatically that these austerity suits, made in utility and non-utility cloths, are not selling.
§ Mr. Walkden
The hon. Member has given me an emphatic answer. May I tell him of my experience only this week? I called in at five different tailors' shops on Monday last. Many of them are friends of mine and they are truthful and honest traders. My hon. Friend the Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. Doland) would not claim that they are all truthful and honest. What they said to me was "We are doing much better than we were doing some weeks ago. Coupons are bothering us more than anything." Many people are buying these suits, and the tailors or outfitters are actually lowering prices, as one hon. Member suggested, with a view to disposing of these suits, and some have had better luck than others. Some in the North of England are selling them a little more freely than is the case in other places. Indeed it is most attractive at the moment to save up one's coupons until one has 26 for a free-style suit rather than an austerity suit. One retailer told me on Monday that his stock of austerity suits was down to 20 per cent. He said he would not have 20 per cent. left on his hands before Easter.
§ Mr. Walkden
He is selling at 20. Admittedly, he did not have an enormous 2234 stock like the case quoted of the man in Streatham, who certainly seems to have been having a difficult time. [An HON. MEMBER: "So have many others."] There are others, indeed, but the picture is not so bad as is made out.
If my hon. Friend is challenging my statements, I shall have the greatest possible pleasure in taking him to the officials of the National Association of Outfitters, The Retail Distributors Association and the Drapers Chamber of Trade. Every figure I have read out to-day can be substantiated.
§ Mr. Walkden
Many of these people are capable of putting over, as Members of Parliament are in this House, an exaggerated point of view and, indeed, colour the picture very badly and often confuse the position very badly too. I maintain that visits to shops give us real evidence, and the only way he can find out what is happening in trade is not by merely taking somebody's figures, collected by some accountant, or by some person representing a particular vested interest. The way you can find out is by going into the shops and seeking consultation with the retailers themselves.
Let me say to the Parliamentary Secretary that the case of the hon. Member for Streatham was indeed a good one, but I do not think he can afford to accept the argument that we should reduce the coupon value of these suits that are on the outfitters' shelves to 13. However, I believe myself that some slight adjustment should be effected forthwith. If, between now and September, he could make that slight adjustment, I believe that the argument we are having to-day will not be repeated by the time we come to the Autumn Recess. But I hope the Parliamentary Secretary is not going to be carried away unduly by the argument that these people are sailing into the bankruptcy court as a result of this Order. It is not true. The traders' representatives are here, and they know full well that many of these people have never made such profits in their lives as they are making to-day as the result of the beneficial advantages given now by respective Government Departments in regard to the control of prices, and with the help of the President of the Board of Trade in particular. Have we not all suffered as a result? I know the difficulties of small 2235 traders, but do not let us shed crocodile tears about it. It is not fair to keep putting this over. Big businesses can take it, I know they can, but the small trader carries small stocks and has been selling his suits in a manner which I think he has adapted to the circumstances.
The hon. Member for South Poplar gave us good evidence. It may be that it was a small trader who sold him the particular suit. What did the small trader do? He adjusted the suit and made it look like something that it was not intended to be It was austerity originally, but now it is a free-style suit, except that it still requires two pockets on the breast. The hon. Member for Streatham knows that the small traders are doing this, so the argument is not only for the small trader. If the Parliamentary Secretary agrees to the proposal of the hon. Member for Streatham, he helps the multiple firms and big business far more than the small trader. I congratulate the small trader on his adaptability. I want to help him, but I do not want to help him in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Streatham because it will help the big people at the top in addition to the little people at the bottom. Consequently, I plead with the Parliamentary Secretary to accept as much as he can of the suggestion, to give what relief he can, but not to make the mistake of being caught up in the argument that these people are bankrupt as a result of the decision which he wisely took when the War Office forced him into that difficult position. I ask him, however, to recognise that some difficulties have been created but not to be in too big a hurry to make the adjustment as a result of these representations.
§ Major Procter (Accrington)
I rise to take part in the Debate to-day because I think there are many lessons to be learned from the story of the austerity suit. There is a poem called "The Song of the Shirt". Perhaps some day someone may write another poem concerning the song of the austerity suit. It is quite true that the Government made a very serious blunder in demanding that style of clothing could be and should be regulated by Government officials. I hope that the lesson which will be learned by this Government and subsequent Governments, based on the experience of the austerity suit, is that the British 2236 people refuse to be regimented and dictated to, especially as to the kind of clothing that they are to wear. The reason why the austerity suit remains unsaleable, cluttering up the shelves of big and little traders, is the fact that people do not want it. The reason they do not want it is that they do not like it. This country built up a world wide reputation and a very large export trade on the quality and style of its tailoring. It was silly for the Government to interfere with the style of clothing in the first instance and it would be worse folly to send out these austerity suits all over the world, especially to Europe, as an advertisement of British tailoring styles and British clothing generally. Whatever is done, if you do not want the people of this country to buy them at reduced coupon prices then put these suits in the cellar but do not let them go abroad as a bad advertisement of the British tailoring art.
§ Major Procter
I would like to wear one just to show the hon. Member what it looks like. I know that, from the best of all possible motives, the Government said, "It is essential that we shall win this war. Therefore, let us cut off the turn-ups of the trousers and reduce the number of pockets." The winning of the war has been the motive for the Government putting over a great many what I regard as silly Regulations. The people have obeyed them from patriotic motives, but they want these Regulations to end with the war and not carried on in peacetime. The working man now realises that in the attempt to satisfy human needs for food, shelter and clothes Government officials are not producers of plenty but only organisers of scarcity. The public want to live their own lives, choose their own styles, and to have a variety of styles to choose from. Therefore, I hope that no future Government will try to interfere with the liberty of the subject in these respects. Furthermore the desires of the customers are so varied that no Government Department is big enough to cater for them. The law of diminishing returns operates in the governmental thinking as in economics. Any Government official can only think of a small number of styles to suit a multitude of tastes. When the Government think of houses, you get a 2237 uniform type of house, with little variety of style and generally fit only for jockeys to live in; if the Government official thinks of clothing he can only do so in terms of uniforms or austerity suits. The tailoring trade of this country has been developed by catering for infinite needs and has a world-wide reputation for style and quality. Therefore, I hope that the country will realise that when the paralysing hand of the Government official interferes in any line of business, the result will be inefficiency, bad style, and goods that many people do not want and will not buy.
The second lesson we ought to learn from the fate of the austerity suit is that the unsaleability of it is due to the operation of Gresham's law, which is that where you have two sorts of currency, good and bad, the bad currency drives the good out of circulation. The reason why the austerity suit is not sold is due to the operation of that law. To-day you have two currencies—the ordinary pounds, shillings and pence currency, and the new currency which I call the coupon currency. The surprising thing is that the ordinary everyday money which the working man and woman has had in the past has not the same value as this new pseudo currency, this regulated coupon currency which was brought in by the Government for the purpose of restricting the free use of the ordinary kind of money.
§ Major Procter
That is what happens to coupons. They go from hand to hand and from pocket to pocket. When a person buys a suit he must have £5 or £10 in one hand and 26 coupons in the other. The one currency is inoperative without the other for you cannot buy suits with money alone, you must have these coupons—this regulated currency. People do not yet realise it but nevertheless it is a new kind of currency. It is more valuable than ordinary money and therefore according to Gresham's law, the less valuable currency drives out the more valuable from circulation, that is why you have people hoarding their coupons. When they have to buy one of these monstrosity suits they do not mind using the 2238 baser currency, which is the pounds, shillings and pence, but they do not want to give up their coupons for them Therefore, if you are going to help the private trader to get rid of his unsaleable austerity suits you have to do something about the coupons. The peculiar thing about it is that while the tailor can have a bargain basement and reduce prices in so far as ordinary money is concerned he cannot by law reduce the coupon price. The sacred value of this new bureaucratic currency must be kept up at all costs, so that, rather than depreciate the value of the new coupon currency, the Board of Trade are going to allow these suits to clothe the people of occupied Europe. That is all very charitable and worthy, but I would rather see the suits on the backs of some of our poor people.
§ Major Procter
No, because mine is a pre-war suit and, not being a Labour Member, I cannot afford to buy a new one, austerity or otherwise. The last lesson I hope the country will learn from its experience with the austerity suit is that to-day the State is becoming far too interfering. The austerity suit is only one thing amongst others to which we are submitting to-day. This war-time experience of Government controls is what many people have been working for all their lives. They have worked and voted for the State to take over all means of production, distribution and exchange. Well, this war has shown what happens when the Government do take over. The people do not like it. It all boils down to the fact that under capitalism you can have the suit you like and that under the State you must have the suit you are told to have.
§ Major Procter
I do not know whether an austerity suit is pawnable or not. What I want the working man to realise is this: There is too much State interference. During the war we have to put up with these things. We have permitted ourselves to be regulated this way and that by all the bureaucrats in the country. As soon as the war is over let the British people say that they will not tolerate interference in 2239 their private lives by the planners, the super-planners and the political magicians who want to order them about and to dictate to them as to the kind of clothing they will wear. I hope we shall soon get rid of this new currency of coupons and restore the old-time liberties that have made this great country what it is.
§ Lieut.-Commander Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)
I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. E. Walkden) upon one point at any rate, namely, in regard to his remarks concerning the width of the range of this Debate. Having commented that it had ranged over a very wide field, the hon. Member, I noticed, introduced the question of ladies' clothes. That was quite a new departure, and I do not propose to follow him. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Accrington (Major Procter) also covered a wide field, and I propose to go back to the original point of this discussion. I wish to introduce a novelty into this Debate by differing from all the hon. Members who have spoken on one point—the Government's original policy with regard to austerity suits. My own view is that the idea, however well or badly it may have been executed, was a very good one. I believe it fitted in with the mood of the people at the time, and that it was a distinct contribution psychologically to the war effort at that time. But where I do differ from the policy of the Government is in regard to the way in which they brought their policy to an end. Whether it actually achieved success while it was in operation I cannot say, because I do not know the actual objects for which it was imposed. I can appreciate the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson), who said that the saving in time, material and labour was negligible, but, on the other hand, I think the Debate seems to have shown that the probable saving in overproduction was considerable, because everybody seems to agree that the number of suits bought by the public during the reign of austerity must have been considerably less than the number of suits bought had they been free style.
§ Lieut.-Commander Joynson-Hicks
I am glad that the hon. Member appreciates 2240 my remarks, because I wish to quote from his speech in support of my own argument. He said that nobody wanted to buy these austerity suits, or words to that effect, but the remarkable thing about his argument was that once the need for buying austerity suits had been relaxed by the introduction of free style suits he said that the tailors whom he had consulted were doing pretty well and that they were getting rid of these suits. Well, if they could not get rid of them during the time when there was nothing else to buy, and if they are not substantially cutting the prices and coupon value, it is difficult to comprehend why they should be able to get rid a them at the present time.
§ Mr. E. Walkden
It was because the coupon value was reduced from 26 to 20 by the Board of Trade, and because the retailers themselves slashed their prices. Those two factors caused the public to buy.
§ Lieut.-Commander Joynson-Hicks
I am grateful for the explanation, because I did not understand the hon. Member to accept the question which was put to him as to whether or not these additional sales were as a result of a slash in prices. I quite agree that, provided prices are slashed, sales are being made at the present time. The hon. Member was quoting his acquaintances in the trade, and I have very little doubt indeed that they are important and wealthy people, with plenty of capital behind them, who can stand that kind of thing. I speak for the small trader who cannot stand that sort of thing. I say, without any heat at all, that the Board of Trade should know and appreciate the personal feeling which has been caused among traders on this matter. I have a letter here from a trader who wrote to me a little while ago on this subjects a trader who is not one of the worst hit because he is not what I call a small trader. He is a medium trader; he has a shop which has more than one branch, but he is not by any manner of means a multiple trader. This trader says, with reference to the President of the Board of Trade:He has badly let us down. He definitely said at a trade conference held in London in October last, at which I was present, that we should have good notice of any change in austerity clothing. He said he realised how unfortunate it would be for us to be left with austerity goods rendered unsaleable by any sudden change. He has not kept his word. We have lost confidence in him.2241 There is no personal animus in that expression of opinion at all; I am merely quoting the impression which the President of the Board of Trade has made on a perfectly bona fide member of the trade by the unfortunate turn of events arising out of the right hon. Gentleman's declaration earlier this year. With regard to small traders the Parliamentary Secretary knows far better than I do that the conditions of trading have changed completely since the war began. Before the war a trader could order more or less what he wanted, from whom he wanted and be sure of getting it. He cannot do that now. If he is to supply his customers' demands he has to stock up in advance, to lay out his capital in purchasing in advance, so to be certain that he has the stocks that his customers might demand, arid, equally, he has to advance his coupon capital and, further, has to order in advance. That is a point which has not so far been brought out to-day. When that had been done the decision was taken to remove austerity regulations with the result that the mass of small traders in the country found that substantially the whole of their cash and coupon capital was locked up and that, in addition, they were saddled with the responsibility of accepting orders, which had previously been placed, for further deliveries of these practically unsaleable goods.
That created a serious condition. The Board of Trade met it to a certain extent—and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will not overstress this point, because it does not go a very long way to meet the traders—by agreeing to take back the austerity suits of utility clothing. But according to the information which has reached me, these stocks were not the principal stocks of the majority of shops, particularly those in the smaller country towns. They were stocking austerity style non-utility cloth suits, in regard to which the Board of Trade have made no substantial effort to assist them. The only contribution has been the reduction by six coupons and that is an insufficient bribe to anybody to enable a person to remove the dislike of the austerity style of suit when he can get a perfectly good one instead. I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to try and meet that situation in some way. With regard to utility cloth suits, if he can do anything to organise the collection of these suits into 2242 requisite pools from which the Board will take them in hundreds it will be a very great help. There are small traders who have nothing like 100 suits on hand, and who are in great difficulty. They no longer have the transport or the personnel to organise and arrange for the handling of these suits and it is a great difficulty for them to be able physically to get rid of the stocks on their shelves, notwithstanding the fact that the Board of Trade were prepared to take them back. If the Government can help us in that way it would be something although I appeal for something greater than that with regard to the austerity style non-utility cloth suits.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Captain Waterhouse)
From a Parliamentary point of view it seems to me an admirable thing that this matter has been aired. Undoubtedly, as my hon. and gallant Friend said, there is a good deal of personal feeling about this change in our policy. On the other hand, I deprecate remarks which have been made about these particular suits and this particular type of clothing. It does not seem to me to be in the best interests of those who have these suits to sell that they should be disparaged, as they are now, both in the House and elsewhere. The arguments that have been adduced arise to a very large extent from a pledge given by my right hon. Friend on October 27th. There is nothing more unfortunate than for the impression to be given that a Minister has broken his word, and my right hon. Friend does not feel that he is guilty of any such breach of his word. It is clear that no changes of this sort can be made without their being previously heralded throughout the country. There have to be consultations and there has to be an announcement, but it is not always true that there have to be long consultations before any announcement can be made. There are many subjects on which grave harm would he done if prolonged consultations, which led to leakages, took place before an announcement. Therefore the announcement was first made on 25th January, precisely five weeks before it became possible to sell non-austerity suits. Suppose my right hon. Friend had done what my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) suggested and given six months' notice of this change.
§ Captain Waterhouse
I am sure my hon. Friend does not suggest that notice could have been given to tens of thousands of traders without it becoming public property.
It is the trade associations which would get the notice. It is the trade associations with whom my right hon. and gallant Friend has been in consultation.
§ Captain Waterhouse
Notice to the trade association would not he of the least benefit to a small trader in the provinces. It is the small trader who wants this information in order that he can make his future dispositions. It is no good for the secretary to have the information in his office in Victoria Street. In other words, this would have had to be made public. What is to happen during the intervening six months? Are manufacturers going to be allowed then to make non-austerity suits or must they only make austerity suits? Are traders going to be forced to take up the whole of the stock of non-austerity which exists and which is made during that time? Surely by the end of such a period one would possibly have a worse position, at least as bad a position as now.
§ Mr. Craik Henderson
We ought to get this clear. The Minister was dealing with a pledge given by the President of the Board of Trade. It may be true, as he says, that they had to do it in this way but the point is that the President in his pledge made no reference to that at all. The pledge was that they would not be confronted with short notice, and he said it would be most unfortunate if a trader were suddenly left, without due notice, with stocks of goods.
§ Captain Waterhouse
I was dealing first of all with the point of notice. The actual words were "reasonable notice." The point that I am making is that in these circumstances the five weeks that was given was reasonable notice and that, had he been given three or six months, the trader would at the end of it have been faced with a position not dissimilar to the present. Therefore I do not think that the traders' position has been worsened—
On a point of Order. My remark about six months' notice has not been answered, or challenged.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Charles Williams)
The hon. Member's observations have already taken up a lot of time. It is not fair to the House to rise up on a point of Order which is not a point of Order.
§ Captain Waterhouse
My hon. Friend endeavoured to intervene in the middle of a sentence. I cannot make reply if I have to give way in the middle of sentences and so break into the context of an intricate argument.
I agree it would be most unfortunate for a trader to be suddenly left, without notice, with stocks of goods which had lost their popular appeal and were unsaleable. That is the crux of the case. I hope to be able to show that under the present provisions traders are not going to be left with large stocks of goods on their hands that are going to be unsaleable. It has been said that these suits were never very popular. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham said they were not selling freely, and others have gone a great deal further. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Accrington (Major Procter) said they were monstrosities. It is perfectly clear from the Debate that Members on all sides of the House—one hon. Member almost stripped to show what kind of suit he had on—knew that austerity suits were bad sellers before ever any change was made at all. Therefore there is no question of the Board of Trade having taken action by which a popular good selling line in the possession of traders has been changed into an unpopular bad selling line. These suits admittedly were not good sellers, and admittedly the public did not very much like them.
It seems to be forgotten in some quarters outside the House that the war is still going on, that we are still desperately short of material and labour, and that we cannot afford to waste this material, and therefore, when my hon. Friend says people should be tempted to buy them, I am not very anxious to tempt people to buy them. It would' be ridiculous to pretend that I was, because I have lost 2245 most of my friends by endeavouring to stop people buying and, if I now stated that I was anxious to tempt people to buy these suits, I might be accused of having changed my mind.
When we endeavour to find out what is happening in any particular trade we have two natural avenues of approach, one through the trade associations, which by and large are extremely co-operative and constantly furnish us with most valuable facts and figures, and the other through the officers of the Board whom we send around. Sometimes they are called "snoopers" and sometimes area distribution officers. I prefer the second appellation. In this case there were three main associations to whom we went for our information. There were the Drapers' Chamber of Trade, composed largely of smaller businesses, the Retail Distributors' Association, whose members are mainly the larger stores, and the National Association of Outfitters, who are again to a large extent the smaller units. We were fortunate in being furnished with figures by the first two. Unfortunately the third were less well placed. Although they got figures from their members, they were not able to analyse them and I have not had the advantage of seeing them, but things must have improved lately in their office because they have apparently had time to analyse them and supply my hon. Friend with them, and they were quoted to-day.
§ Captain Waterhouse
It does not seem that the figures my hon. Friend quoted are very dissimilar from those supplied by the other organisations. The Drapers' Chamber of Trade showed sales of utility garments, during the first six weeks of these restrictions, of 42 per cent. and of non-utility garments—three-piece suits—19 per cent. The Retail Distributors' Association showed sales during the first four weeks of 60.7 of utility three-piece suits and 15.9 per cent. of non-utility three-piece suits. We had inquiries made by one of our area distribution officers and, as the result of visiting 104 shops in London, by the middle of March, that is after six weeks, of utility three-piece suits there had been sales of 46.7 per cent. and of non-utility suits, 37.7 per cent. By and large it looks as if, on the utility side, sales had varied from 25 up to 60 per cent, and, on the non-utility side, from 15 up to about 25 per cent. But, of course, 2246 it has to be made clear that these sales came about because to a certain extent there had been a coupon and price reduction. Many of these traders jumped into this trouble themselves.
On 1st February new coupons were being issued. Many people had been waiting to buy their suits. I believe it was an unnecessary, and I am sure it was an unwise, thing for those concerned to weigh in with a heavy coupon and price reduction before they had tested the market at all. Coming back to the figures, some of my hon. Friends know a great deal more about the details of the business than I do, but what is the normal speed of turnover of ready-made suits? Can a manufacturer sell his whole stock in much less than six months? If he can turn over his stocks twice in a year, would he not consider it good business.
§ Captain Waterhouse
That means he does it every four or five months. There is no evidence of a great slowing down here in the amount of sales which have been made. The worst of the non-utility suits sell 15 per cent. in a month, which is slower, but it is not very much slower, than the ordinary speed of sale which has been suggested as normality. I want to make it clear that I am not saving there is no problem here. I know there is a problem. What I am trying to show is that it has been exaggerated and that by this very exaggeration it has been made worse than it otherwise would have been. I am aware, too, that average figures are always delusive. There is no such thing as an average man, and I take it, therefore, that there is no such thing as an average shop. When I produced these figures the other day my hon. Friend pointed out to me that they included those of a large store in Scotland which had sold a great many suits at a cut price and that the figures were warped for that reason. That may well be so, and I appreciate that there will be many cases in the country as a whole where small traders have found that this alteration has had a definitely bad effect on their trade. That I admit, and I am very sorry for them.
What are we doing in order to fulfil the President's pledge that he would not let this loss fall on the traders? These suits divide themselves into those which 2247 are made of utility cloth and those which are made of non-utility cloth. In production the utility is about 80 per cent. and the non-utility about 20 per cent. That probably does not apply to the stocks because the sales of non-utility are always slower than those of the utility, and, therefore, the stocks may be larger, but the production figures are between 75 and 80 per cent. of utility and between 20 and 25 per cent. of non-utility.
§ Captain Waterhouse
No, these are suits. The point I want to bring out is that the non-utility suits even in value, are a great deal less than half, and in quantity are probably about one quarter. On the utility side the position has been fairly clear. My right hon. Friend announced in the House some time ago that the Ministry of Supply were prepared to buy all the properly made utility suits which became available if they could be put in blocks of not fewer than 100. We asked the trade associations to help us and to act as our agents in sampling these suits. Some of the trade associations have done what they could. One of them unhappily gave an absolutely inaccurate and misleading interview to the Press recently, which did harm both to its own reputation and to the object which it no doubt was genuinely trying to attain in gingering us up. The trade associations said they would undertake to sample the suits, and when the sampling is completed the Ministry of Supply will buy in lots of 100. I hope it may be possible to get a lower number than too accepted, because quite clearly in small provincial towns it is not easy for two or three traders to get together and make up a parcel of Rio suits. I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend and I will take such steps as are reasonably possible, in consultation with the Ministry of Supply to find ways and means of taking small lots from small traders. In saying that, I emphasise that we have the right to expect in the future, as in the past, that we may have the wholehearted help of the trade associations in that endeavour.
Let us turn to the non-utility suits. These suits are excellent. The utility are good, but these are excellent. They are first-class work and material and are well cut. It is true that the trousers are not turned- 2248 up and that there are several pockets short, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. E. Walkden) pointed out, they are first-class suits and should commend themselves to anybody who is at all coupon short. After all, there is a material difference, when one has only 48 coupons in the year, between buying a suit which costs 20 coupons and a suit which costs 26. I have to admit that so far I have not found a way of dealing with the problem of these suits. I do not admit that it is as acute as some of my hon. Friends appear to think, but it is a problem. We are doing our utmost to find outlets for these suits and we will continue that endeavour. That is as much as I can say on that particular line, except this. Somebody went so far as to say that before these restrictions were removed they were completely disregarded; the word "cheated" was used about it. There is now no question of cheating. If you want to put in another pocket or want to turn up the trousers, I cannot see that it is so difficult to get certain alterations made in some of these suits which will make them as good from the point of view of the wearer as the non-austerity. If the alterations are done at home subsequent to purchase they will not require the extra coupons, and the buyer will get a suit with turn-up trousers if he wants them and an extra pair of pockets in his waistcoat for 20 instead of 26 coupons.
§ Captain Waterhouse
That has been thought of before. I may tell the House that the length of people's legs has, over the last two years, increased by an average of 2 inches. If I may sum up the position, as always the hardship which this alteration has involved is unequal. Some traders will not feel it, but other traders will feel it considerably. There certainly has been no cessation of sales, and the slackening of sales which has taken place has not been by and large sufficiently grave to justify the fear which has been aroused in the minds of traders. I hope that, as the result of this Debate, and possibly of what I am saying now, traders will be encouraged to take a better view of their own affairs and not decide to cut either the coupon rate or the price rate of the suits which are left. On the utility 2249 side, there is really no problem at all except one of administration, and I have undertaken to do my best to solve that. These suits are eventually to be taken by the Ministry of Supply, and that meets three-quarters of the problem. On the non-utility side, I admit that there is a problem which is not yet completely solved. The rate of sales of these suits has always been much slower than that of the utility. We therefore have more time in which to take a proper view. My right hon. Friend and I will not give any encouragement to those who think there should be a reduction of coupons. We have come definitely to the conclusion that that would be unwise. With that clear understanding, the House may take it as definite that we will do all that we can by other means to find ways for relieving traders of suits which they ultimately find unsaleable, but we expect them to help themselves and to do their utmost to sell their own wares through the normal channels.