Rising prices during the war had led to accusations of profiteering among shopkeepers and others. A meeting of the Luton Tradesmen's Association on Tuesday, July 15th, 1919, raised concerns that traders were being unjustly blamed for high prices.
Mr Charles Mares (President) said there was a great outcry in reference to the rise in prices, and it appeared the retailers stood in grave danger of being unjustly saddled with the responsibility. It was, he thought, quite obvious that this responsibility could not be laid at their account.
In a report in the Luton News (Thursday, June 17th, 1919), Mr Mares was quoted as saying that in his judgment the one factor which was responsible for the present situation was that very large number of men had been drawn from productive occupation and engaged for several years in non-productive work. Until the leeway thereby lost could be recovered, he could see no prospect of improvement.
There were no short cuts, and no interference on the part of the Government would put things right so quickly as would increased production and the ability to fill the market with goods. Sio long as there was more money than goods, the present danger must continue.
Guest speaker Mr P. Howling (General Secretary of the National Chamber of Trade) said that on different occasions during the past year he had expressed the opinion that the day may not be far distant when the whole system of distributive trading, as it was now understood, would be called upon to subject itself to very severe tests, and the events of the past few weeks had more than justified that opinion.
Mr Howling went on to refer to an announcement by Mr Bonar Law in the House of Commons that it was the proposal of the Government to set up a select committee to examine the whole question of high prices, not only in regard to food but as to clothing and other commodities.
The National Chamber had already most strongly urged upon the Government that every facility should be given for the presentation of the case for the retailer, through and by accredited trade organisations; and that no policy should be adopted until such time as the traders – the vast majority of whom had a desire to serve the interests of the public – had been accorded the fullest opportunity not only of considering the policy proposed by the Government, but of placing before it also a clear and complete statement of the difficulties with which they, as distributors, had to deal, as between manufacturers, wholesalers and consumers.
Mr Howling said it was hinted that the Government were contemplating the creation of a system of local tribunals to deal with profiteering. Under the scheme as hinted, the intention was to set up Fair Prices Tribunals in every locality, with powers to examine evidence as to the conditions which operated, and to take such action as considered necessary in order to effect a remedy.
Food, clothing, boots and other necessities of life – by which was understood to be meant articles in general household use – were all to come within the purview of these Tribunals.
That revealed, he said, that there was a body of public opinion which was desirous of subjecting the system of distribution prevailing in this country to “a process of severe and irritating machinery”.
If these Tribunals were intended simply to be watchdogs to discover the profiteer, he should ask what had become of the ordinary process of the administration of law. If they were meant to be bodies of investigation, he should want to know what safeguards were proposed to protect those who might be brought before the “inquisitorial capacity of these authorities”.
Later, Mr Howling said: “It is an absurd idea to suppose that because a thing is expensive necessarily there is profiteering behind it. In order to arrive at safe and sane conclusions, it is necessary that these inquirers should be fortified with a full knowledge of costings, from the manufacture of an article, down through its many stages to the eventual sale over the counter.
“And we have yet to learn that the good people who usually find a seat on such voluntary bodies are in fact fortified with the kind of knowledge I have indicated.”
The Association must turn its undivided attention to these and similar matters, for there were very serious times ahead. The traders had largely brought upon themselves the position in which they were placed, however, for they seemed to have been conspicuously lacking in the genius of organisation up till a few years ago. There were happily many signs now that in this respect they had indeed entered into a new consciousness.