Wednesday, 18 November 1925
Dáil Éireann Debate
Major COOPER: I gave notice to-day that on the adjournment I would raise the question of the British Food Prices Commission and the necessity of controlling prices in the Saorstát. I did so with a view to getting more information with regard to the answer given by the Minister for Industry and Commerce at question time to-day when he said it was the intention of the Executive Council to bring forward a resolution in both Houses of the Oireachtas to establish a tribunal under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act of 1921, as to the cost of certain articles of general consumption. Now, after hammering away at this question of the control of prices for more than two years at intervals, I feel as if I were entering the promised land when I have actually got a promise from the Government that they are going to take effective action in the matter. Before I begin this evening's Te Deum Laudamus, I would like a little more information. It would be a grave misfortune if this tribunal that is to be set up shared the fate of the Commission on Prices, of which certain Deputies were members about three years ago.
I do not want to criticise that Commission, and, if I did, I believe Deputy Wilson would deal with me, but there is no doubt that the result of that Commission was not successful. I think that that was partly due to the time at which it was sitting. In the winter of 1922 and the spring of 1923 people were not so vitally concerned with prices as with the question as to whether they would be alive or dead next day. Public opinion was not, therefore, in support of the Commission, and the Commission was also gravely handicapped because it had not compulsory powers to call witnesses and make them answer questions put to them. I gather that this tribunal to be set up will have these powers under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act. I gather that any person who refuses to appear as witness or refuses to answer questions put by the tribunal will be reported to the High Court, and the High Court, if they think fit, can deal with this as being contempt of court. This will make the Commission a much more effective body  than the Commission on Prices. There is another provision in the Act which I look on with some doubt. It contemplates the inquiry being held in public. I desire that everybody should have fair play. I do not think it would be fair, perhaps, to single out one particular trader—Deputy Beamish perhaps—bring him before the inquiry, and make him give evidence on oath as to his business, while you may not call his trade rivals. I think if the Commission is to be effective, and if it is to get the necessary information, it will require, at least in part, to sit in camera, as people should not fairly be asked to give intimate information about their business in public. I wonder if the inquiry will have power to obtain information from the Revenue authorities not as to individuals but as to business as a whole. The British Commission got valuable information from the Inland Revenue. No names of individuals were mentioned, but they were told that groups of so many butchers and bakers had increased their income tax returns for such and such a period. I believe that that would be valuable information for this tribunal to get. I would also like to know when this tribunal will be established, and when will the resolutions be brought forward, as the question is one of urgency. Prices are already showing their seasonal tendency to rise. I hope there will be no undue delay in establishing the tribunal. I would not quarrel with delay if it meant getting a better tribunal of more representative men to sit on it, but the matter is one that will not brook long delay. Then again, will the tribunal be a permanent body? The British Commission, of course, is not a complete guide for us, but it indicates in some respects the directions in which we can go:—
“What we feel to be required is a continuing association between some permanent organ of the State and the food traders whose business activities we have been examining. We have, therefore, decided to recommend that your Majesty's Government should immediately consider the advisability of establishing a permanent body, to be called the Food Council, whose duty it shall be to study current and future  problems of wheat and meat supplies and prices and to issue periodical reports. We do not contemplate a new Department of State with a considerable staff. We have in view the formation of a body which, by combining representation of economic, financial, administrative and consuming interests, would gain the confidence of the public and the respect of the business world.... It will act rather as a mediator between producer, trader and consumer, in reconciling for a common end interests which we do not regard as necessarily conflicting. This idea we develop more fully later. The Food Council should possess a small staff and should have, as assessors, representatives of the principal food trades. From the Departments of State it would, no doubt, derive the information and assistance which have been freely accorded to your Commissioners.”
The tribunal should be permanent, because if you have only a temporary body, those traders and interests who do not wish to give information will stonewall and only give information gradually, and it will have to be drawn out of them, in the hope that they will be able to defer the evil day. With a permanent body they cannot defer the evil day. There should be a secretariat or small staff which would report, not to the Minister who could, of course, use the information if he thinks fit, but to a body in the State charged with the supervision of this problem of prices.
To put it briefly, does the body that the Minister and the Executive Council contemplate correspond to the Commission which sat first or to the Food Council which was set up as a result of the report of the Commission? I hope that the announcement which the Minister has made will not create false hopes. There is no patent medicine to cure the problem of high prices. It is a very difficult and complicated problem and I hope I have never, in dealing with the subject, maintained that it was anything else. The causes of high prices are not, of course, confined or peculiar to the Saorstát. They are world-wide and full of ramifications. The Minister, before he reformed, was  a professor, so I will not apologise to him for quoting Latin: “Felix, ille erat qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.”—“Happy is the man who helped to discover the cause of things.” In this case I think that this particular man, this particular Felix, will have to keep on walking for a considerable time before the causes of these difficulties are discovered. There is a problem to which this tribunal will have to address itself at once, that is the problem of why the cost of living is higher in Saorstát Eireann than almost anywhere else in Western Europe; why, when prices rise in Saorstát Eireann they rise in double ratio compared with Great Britain? The index figure of the cost of living goes up double in the Saorstát to that in Great Britain, while if prices fall in Saorstát Eireann they only fall half as compared with the fall in Great Britain. That is so in some cases at any rate.
Major COOPER: I am basing it perhaps on one thing, the cost of bread, which between September 22nd and October 15th dropped a penny per four pound loaf in Great Britain while in a similar period there was only a fall of a halfpenny in the same loaf in Saorstát Eireann, and there has not been a fall since. I may, however, be generalising from too narrow a point; in any case there is a problem and the Minister will not dispute that the ratio rise in the cost of living figure is higher in Saorstát Eireann than in Great Britain. I only want, finally, to emphasise the great importance of this problem which lies at the bottom of almost every problem, including especially labour and housing, and almost every difficulty that comes before the Oireachtas. So, I hope, not merely will the Dáil take an interest in the problem but that they will have the support of the public behind them. I hope, and believe, that this is a genuine endeavour on the part of the Government to bring prices down, but they cannot do so unless they have the support of the public in their attempt to deal with this problem. I hope, and believe, that that  support and interest which are essential to deal successfully with the matter will not be lacking.
Mr. HEFFERNAN: I welcome the pronouncement by the Minister, but at the same time I wish to enter a protest in regard to the manner in which personally I have been dealt with in connection with this subject. I put down a question which was answered in the House, I think last Tuesday, and I can only say that it was treated in a spirit of levity. The final part of the answer was simply a jeer at me personally, rather than an attempt to deal seriously with this outstanding problem. In the question I put down I asked the Minister if he would suggest to the Executive Council that it was advisable a commission of inquiry of a similar type to that established in England should be set up in this country to deal with questions of high retail and wholesale prices, which were generally acknowledged to prevail in the Sáorstát. The answer was that the matter would be considered by the Minister for Industry and Commerce, and that he would be glad to get any information that I would be able to give him. That is not the spirit in which to deal with an important problem of that kind, and I say that the answer given to Deputy Cooper to-day might just as well have been given to me.
The PRESIDENT: I would like if the Deputy would develop his point about levity in answering his question. I am a little slow in arriving at an understanding of the Deputy's words. I certainly have yet to grasp where the levity came in, and I am keen on realising where it did.
Mr. HEFFERNAN: The confirmation of my opinion that the reply in the main was in the spirit of levity was in the manner in which the President read the answer. We can come to conclusions as to the intentions and ideas lying at the back of peoples' minds as well by their actions as their words.
The PRESIDENT: May I assure the Deputy that I had no intention of importing any levity whatever into the very prosaic answer which was supplied to me by the Department so ably presided over by the Minister for Industry and Commerce.
Mr. HEFFERNAN: I must and will accept the President's explanation. I can only say that was the impression I drew from the manner in which the answer was delivered. Anyhow, I welcome the statement that a tribunal is to be set up. I believe it has come none too soon, and perhaps it is a good deal too late, because the Government has shown signs of its determination to bring wages down to a certain level, and that is a movement which is, in my opinion, necessary with regard to certain industries, but, as I have already stated on another occasion, when the Government is dealing with the question of wages it should also deal with the question of prices and the cost of living. I do not know if there is any better method known to Governments for doing so than by setting up a council of inquiry of the type which has been set up in England. It should not be necessary for me to give information to the Minister for Industry and Commerce as to the necessity for a council at this time, or to furnish him with particulars as to high prices.
Mr. HEFFERNAN: It is difficult to give particulars as to profiteering, but it is generally understood that the retail prices are higher in Ireland than  those prevailing in England. As the Minister knows, the cost of living is about nine points, and perhaps more, higher here than in England. It is extraordinary that in a poor country like this producers are getting lower prices for their food products than can be got for similar food products in England. That points to the fact that some people, retailers or middlemen, are getting more profit than they are entitled to from food products.
Mr. HEFFERNAN: We have concrete facts. We know the price of bread has come down in England, and we know from information given in the newspapers that the 4lb. loaf is sold in England, commonly, for 9d., and sometimes less by co-operative societies. I believe the price we pay for the 4lb. loaf in some of the smaller Irish towns is 11d. I know of no reason, except it be wages, why there should be a difference between the prices.
Mr. HEFFERNAN: What I have stated is clear evidence that profiteering is going on. I believe before we can have things going as they ought to be producers of food in this country should get their share of what they are entitled to, and the cost of living must be reduced. We must take some measures so that the people who are battening on the products of this country, and who are getting more than their share of the food products, can be dealt with. I welcome the tribunal, and hope it will be set up in the immediate future.
Mr. MORRISSEY: I associate myself with Deputy Bryan Cooper in this matter. I think the Ministry ought to  show at least as much keenness in dealing with the question of high prices as they are showing in dealing with, shall we say, wages. If they ever bring the cost of living into conformity with that in other countries I think they would be helping to make for a little stability in the industrial sphere. Deputy Cooper, and also Deputy Heffernan, spoke of the difference in the cost of living in this country as compared with England or Scotland. It has always seemed to me one explanation that might be given is that economically this country is more or less lopsided. It will be admitted that there are too many people engaged in distribution.
I think it will be admitted that there are too many people in this country engaged in distribution. They are in nothing like the same proportion to the number engaged in production in England, and it seems to me that that is probably one of the reasons; that we have in this country too many people engaged in distribution, and these people are certainly reaping more benefits from the sale of commodities than the people who have the trouble and the work of raising them. That is the main reason for the high cost here. I hope the Minister will be able to say to the House that the Government are going to deal with this problem and as soon as possible.
Mr. McGILLIGAN: There is nothing about the control of prices in the Deputy's question nor in my answer. There is matter about the investigation of prices, but I do not believe that the investigation of prices is going to do any good without control later on, and when one begins to consider what control later on leads to one understands why there has been such reluctance to tackle this question in this way. There  will be given, if the resolutions which will be brought forward by some member of the Executive Council pass, to, the Oireachtas powers to get evidence compulsorily. The compulsory resolutions will be based upon the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921. Deputy Cooper raised a point that it may be necessary to have evidence taken in camera. My reading of the Act leads me to believe that evidence could not be taken in camera.
Mr. McGILLIGAN: I think there would be considerable leave and licence under the Act to have evidence taken in camera. At any rate that is the only Act under which compulsory powers could be given in this country. At the moment it is the only instrument we have to hand for this purpose, and it is the only thing we could use. The question is one that I had not previously considered, but I do believe there would be room for evidence to be taken in camera under it.
Major COOPER: May I say that I raised the point because I did not want the Government afterwards to be accused of taking the initiative in this matter of having evidence taken in camera. It might be necessary in some cases to have evidence taken in camera, and therefore I wanted to take the initiative in the matter so that the Government would not be blamed afterwards for it.
Mr. McGILLIGAN: The Deputy can bring that matter forward again when the Resolutions come before the House. There will, of course, be some delay in getting the particular Resolutions framed, getting the terms of reference for the tribunal, and getting a suitable tribunal. In addition to that, I would ask the House to bear with a few extra day's delay because developments are expected with regard to the Food Council on the other side, and these developments may, if they come along, seriously damp the enthusiasm of those who believe that anything great is going to come from a committee of this sort. In fact, it may appear that a committee of this sort, unless some additional powers are sought for it,  would be entirely useless, and the proof of that will be in the proceedings of the Council on the other side if they develop as we think they are likely to from the information we already have. As I said to the Deputy, I had no intention when putting this before the Executive Council of asking that the Executive Council should move for any permanent body. The Deputy has put the matter rather succinctly when he asks is the committee to correspond to the committee on food prices or to the Food Council. To a certain extent it will correspond to both, with this limitation, that it will not have the permanent character of the Food Council. It may have that character later on. I think it necessary that there should be some inquiry to see whether a prima facie case can be made and that prices for any commodity are too high. It may seem strange to a House which has listened to all the talk about high prices that I should dare to make such a remark as that. I make it in the light of Deputy Morrissey's point that the trouble here may be that there are too many distributors, no single one of these distributors being ordinarily liable to the accusation of profiteering, as the word is understood, but simply the added charges which each makes to the cost of any article amounting in the end to such a figure that the prices are higher here than what they are on the other side. It is not a question of dealing possibly with profiteering, as the word is understood, but a question of dealing with the whole system of distribution in this country.
There has to be, therefore, a case made out that prices are too high and that measures to reduce prices can be found, and even when they are found, there is the further consideration: is it practicable to give effect, or is it possible to give effect, to the methods recommended. I think it better, therefore, that this should be discussed when the Resolutions come before the Oireachtas and that the committee sought for, in the first instance, should not have anything of a permanent character about it, but that there should be, in order to obviate the objections by Deputy Cooper, an intimation  that if it be successful it would assume something of a permanent character, and that no delay on the part of traders will be allowed to hamper its operations—that is to say, that there will be a fixed period given within which a report must be made, so as to prevent traders who might like, in the Deputy's phrase, to stonewall and render the whole thing abortive, doing such a thing. If we were to proceed immediately to the appointment of, say, a permanent Chairman and a permanent Secretariat, on the analogy of the Committee on the other side, we might be setting up a new Government Department costing a big sum of money, and might discover, after the first inquiry into the first article selected, that the Committee was going to be no good, and that the money had, to a certain extent, been wasted.
I cannot understand the remarks of either Deputy Morrissey or Deputy Heffernan with regard to the Government's keenness with regard to wages. I suppose we shall hear more of that later on. I do wish to join up one remark of Deputy Heffernan with a remark of Deputy Cooper, who asked why the cost of living was higher here than anywhere else. The Deputy had raised this previously with me in a letter, and I had replied that it did not seem to me that the cost of living had increased in the period the Deputy spoke of, proportionately or disproportionately, to the increase on the other side.
Mr. McGILLIGAN: If you want to establish that the rate of increase here is out of proportion to the rate of increase on the other side we should have to get data going back as far as 1914. The Deputy, at present, is basing two things on entirely different years. There is hardly any basis for comparison between the two figures, and it is a misreading of the situation to say that the increase, simply on the calculation which the Deputy has given proves a disproportion in the increase.  I am asked why is the cost of living higher. I do not want to make too much of that point. Deputy Johnson made a speech in this House which I did not hear but which I read. He may have pointed to certain reasons as to why certain things are higher here than elsewhere. Deputy Heffernan, who is so anxious to have these commodities reduced, and who apparently, also, is anxious to have wages reduced, voted with Deputy Johnson when he made his announcement that evening.
Mr. HEFFERNAN: On a point of personal explanation, I wish to say that it is hardly fair of the Minister to state that I voted with Deputy Johnson. I did not vote in favour of Deputy Johnson's motion because his motion never went to the House, but I voted against the Government motion because the arguments used in favour of that motion, whether right or wrong, were not pertinent to the particular motion.
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