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Retail Trading Inquiry

Volume 938: debated on Monday 7 November 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Trade what were the results of the 1976 inquiry into retail trading; and what benefits have been secured or are expected to be secured from this census.

Provisional results of the 1976 retail inquiry are likely to be published around the end of the year. They will provide information which is essential to the requirements of the Government and outside users.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his written assurances about trying to reduce the burden of form-filling on small businesses in the future, but is he not conceding that the 1976 census was particularly and excessively bureaucratic, time-consuming and costly and that it should not be repeated? Can he give us a specific example of where this country would be worse off if these retail inquiries were abandoned altogether?

So far from the 1976 retail inquiry being particularly bureaucratic, the number of firms to which the inquiry was sent out was 30,000, compared with the total of 300,000 forms sent out by the Conservative Government in their retail inquiry in 1971. The position would therefore appear to be 10 times better, from the hon. Gentleman's point of view, under Labour. The information is required for Government purposes for details of stocks, capital expenditure and sales of each commodity type. Without this material, it would be impossible for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to control the economy in the way that he is able to do so.

Is the Minister aware that one of the many complaints of small retailers who are burdened with these inquiries is that, when they have taken the trouble to submit these returns, they never receive the courtesy of being told what has happened and what the results of the survey are? Will he, therefore, undertake to extend to firms which have gone to the trouble, voluntarily and at their own expense, to return these forms the courtesy of giving them the results of his census and eventually any conclusions that the Government may draw from them?

I think that that is a valuable suggestion. It was raised at a meeting which I had with persons to whom the retail inquiry forms had been sent out. We are considering how we can do that without undue extra bureaucratic expense, certainly to let the main retail organisations know the results.

Is the Minister aware that this country used to be a country of small independent shopkeepers and that one needs only to go down the High Streets of towns and cities to see that they are becoming filled with multiples backed by financial institutions? It does not need an inquiry to tell us that. All that is needed is for the Government to ease up on the restrictions, the taxation and all the rest that is now imposed upon the very small businesses and to encourage them.

I have already indicated the way in which we are reducing the burden. The retail inquiry for 1977 will actually go out to 25,000, which is less than the total for 1976. But of course, if we are to get up-to-date statistics for the whole retail trade, it must include a minimum proportion of retail traders in order to get that result.

Are not the new arrangements that 30,000 forms will go out every year, whereas the old arrangements were that 300,000 forms went out every 10 years? I cannot understand how 30,000 multiplied by 10 is fewer than 300,000. If I have understood the position incorrectly, perhaps the Under-Secretary, with his long experience of these statistical problems, can put me right.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman listened to my last answer. I indicated that we were steadily reducing the number of forms sent out each year, so that the total result would be considerably less burdensome than it was under the Conservative Government in 1971.