HC Deb 19 May 1930 vol 239 cc175-83

Resolution reported That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session (hereinafter referred to as the said Act') to provide for the constitution of a Consumers' Council, to define the powers and duties of that Council, to enable the Board of Trade to regulate by order the prices to be charged for certain commodities and the charges to be made in respect of sales thereof, and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of—

  1. (a) any expenses incurred by the Board of Trade in paying such remuneration (if any) and such travelling and subsistence allowances to the chairman, deputy chairman, and members of the Council constituted by the said Act, such remuneration to accountants and other assistants employed by the Council, and such other expenses of the Council as the Board of Trade, with the approval of the Treasury, may determine; and
  2. (b) any other expenses incurred by the Board of Trade under the said Act."

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That this Rouse doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."


The estimated cost of this Resolution is £20,000 and that estimate was carefully drawn up. It is a large amount, and we were under the impression that it was not likely that this Resolution would be reached to-night and that it certainly would not be passed to-night. In these circumstances, we must try to elicit some further information as to what is likely to be the cost of the Consumers' Council. The Government are now asking the House to give them a blank cheque with no limit whatever. The Bill founded on this Resolution gives almost unlimited powers to the Council which is to be set up, to regulate the price of almost every commodity in ordinary use in every household and family in the land. If these powers are going to be put in operation by the Government, clearly the expenditure incurred will be very large, and cannot be limited to anything like the sum that the Prime Minister himself told us was a close estimate of the cost. Therefore it would seem either that the Government, in their speeches commending the Bill to the House, were attempting to hoodwink the people of this country into thinking that they intended to do a great deal more than they actually will do, or they only mean this Bill to be, to use a vulgar phrase, eye-wash. If, indeed, any estimate, even an approximate one, has been made, clearly the Government have no intention of operating the Bill to any large extent such as they suggested, and therefore I feel that this opportunity ought not to be allowed to pass without an attempt to elicit some information from the Government on this very important matter. If we are to be asked time after time to pass Votes which are only token Votes, if that, and simply to give blank cheques to the Government for almost any object that they think fit, the whole procedure of Parliamentary financial business will be reduced to a farce, and it is high time that a strong protest was made.


Perhaps I may endeavour to give the information asked for by the hon. and gallant Member. I think that he is mistaken when he suggests that no information was given when this Resolution was in Committee, because on that occasion my right hon. Friend gave, I think, as much information as it was possible to give in the circumstances. It will be understood, of course, that it is almost impossible to give an exact figure for the cost in connection with a Resolution of this character. My right hon. Friend did give the figure which he thought was an outside figure, namely, £20,000, and that was made up, firstly, of a sum of £8,000 or £10,000 for the necessary staff for the purpose of carrying out the duties of the Council. [Interruption.] It is impossible to give an exact figure on such an occasion as this, however desirous one may be of doing so. The staff that we have reasonable expectations will be necessary for this purpose will cost from £8,000 to £10,000. The other expenses will very largely be associated with the Chairman and Vice-Chairman who we propose shall be paid salaries. The members of the Council will be able to give their services as the members of the present Food Council have given theirs during the time it has been in existence, and the cost under that heading will be about £2,000. From those figures it will be seen that, so far as it is possible to forecast at the moment, it will be well within the £20,000 which my right hon. Friend mentioned when the Financial Resolution was in Committee as likely to be the cost. Having given that information, which, perhaps, is as full and complete as it is possible to give in the circumstances, I trust that it will be possible for us to have the Vote.


The hon. Gentleman has failed to give us the information on one aspect of this question on which we really want it. If I am right, one of the troubles about the expenditure under the Bill will arise in proportion to the activity of whoever directs the Committee, the number of inquiries that they set up, and the number of different articles in regard to which they propose to put the Bill into operation. The hon. Gentleman has accounted for £12,000 out of the 220,000. That leaves £8,000. It all depends upon how many inquiries are going to be made and how prolonged and difficult they are whether that £8,000 will be exceeded or not. The Government ought to give us a great deal more information on this point, and they will probably save themselves a great deal of trouble in getting some of the Clauses, because otherwise there is undoubtedly an inducement to those who do not altogether care about the form of the Bill to impose some limit by means of financial restrictions or otherwise upon the number of inquiries that are going to be made and the amount of work that is going to be done by the Council and the different materials with which it is going to occupy its time and the services of witnesses and experts who will have travelling expenses and costs. Therefore I hope we shall get, if not now, in Committee, some forecast of what the Government think is likely to be the extent of the operations of this Council in regard to the number of the articles that they will consider, and the expense that will be involved.


I am not at all satisfied with the hon. Gentleman's explanation. When the matter was before the House before, a question was put to the Prime Minister whether £20,000 would be the sum total that he would ask the House to vote for the purpose, and he was not prepared to guarantee that it was. While he said that he hoped that it would not exceed the £20,000 which was asked for, he was not prepared to give a guarantee that it would not exceed that amount, and that he would not have to come to the House for a Supplementary Estimate. As the question of setting up a Consumers' Council is one of great controversy, we ought to know our exact financial commitments before we vote this sum. We ought to have an assurance from the President of the Board of Trade that this will not be exceeded, at any rate during the current financial year. According to the statement of the Parliamentary Secretary, there would be a balance of £8,000 available for other expenses, and surely that ought to be sufficient for the purpose for which this Council is being set up.


Usually when anyone makes an attempt to estimate the cost of anything he starts by knowing exactly what work is to be entailed. It is not always the easiest matter in the world to make an accurate estimate in those circumstances. On the present occasion, we are asked to accept an estimate which is not even based upon an estimate of the work which will be entailed. We have heard nothing as to the details of the work the Minister expects to be accomplished. We have had no information as to the scope or extent of the Consumers Council nor as to the number of investigations which are likely to be held. Therefore, in any case, any estimate based on such inadequate information can be of no guidance to the House. It would have been far better if the Minister had been sufficiently frank with the House and had asked for a very much larger sum. He might then have said: "This amount will not be exceeded, but I firmly believe that the amount may be much less." In the interests of public finance, I hope that we shall go to a Division on the matter.


The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade explained that he had started this hare, but who could possibly say how far it was going to run. That is a sporting spirit in which to bring forward a proposal of this kind, but I do not know that it is a particularly dignified way in which to start a Consumers' Council. We understood that this proposal was to be a guarantee and safeguard to the poor consumer in this country, and now we find that this new institution which is to have such powers and such far-reaching effects in protecting the consumer is to run the whole hog on £20,000. There is a disparity between the means and the end which, I am afraid, I cannot quite swallow. I do not measure the importance of any institution of this kind by the amount of money to be spent, but surely it is obvious that, if you are going to do what the hon. Member professes is going to be done, namely, to set up a large number of inquiries and to exercise a large range of compulsory powers for the purpose of protecting the consumer, the sum of £20,000 must be an absurd sum.

I understand from the Parliamentary Secretary that this body is to have a salaried Chairman and Vice-Chairman but that it is hoped the other members of the Tribunal will give their services, as do the Food Council. This is a very different body. The Food Council is a body of inquiry, with no authority behind its decisions except the reasons which it can publish for public information to back up its decisions. It submits its judgment to the public and the public judges of the soundness of the council's judgment by the case or the counter case put up in public. This new council is not a committee of inquiry or an advisory committee advising the public what they ought to pay; it is charged with the most immense power of compulsion. Although the members of the new council may not be able to impose compulsion, the object of their judgment is to furnish the basis for compulsion of the citizens of this country, and to have so responsible a tribunal composed mainly of officials who give part of their time voluntarily to this work seems to me to be bad in principle and as a standard of propriety, hopelessly improper. If we are to have a tribunal of this kind it ought to be a tribunal of men wholly devoted to that job and with no other business in which to spend their time. They ought not to do work of this kind in their spare time. They ought not to be volunteers kindly giving the Government a bit of their time in order to help them. This is not a worthy way of setting up the new council: it is wrong in principle and I hope the Government will re-consider their position.


I am amazed that even a Government so discredited as this one should bring forward a Resolution of this kind at this time of night. They have so little to put in their window that I cannot imagine they would refrain from putting this item in a more prominent position if it had anything behind it. What has struck me in the discussion on this Resolution was the statement of the Minister that the sum of £20,000 was an outside estimate. If anyone had been listening to him without any knowledge of his past or present they might have imagined that it was nut a matter to worry about, or in all probability the cost would be £8,000, £10,000 or possibily £12,000, but no more. I have been working out what the cost is likely to be to the taxpayer. This Consumers' Committee must work practically the whole the year if it is to do anything, and we shall have to get six or seven highly paid officials. I cannot see how that cost will come out at less than £10,000 or £12,000 a year out of a total estimated cost of £20,000 a year. To carry all these highly paid officials—and the more you pay them the more they will collect cohorts of staffs and secretaries—means additional expense. There is also their travelling expenses and the cost of the inquiries which may take place anywhere, into any form of consumption from Land's End to John-o-Groats; and in Wales as well. The Resolution is not based upon any adequate details.

I have no doubt that the Parliamentary Secretary has done his best according to his instructions, but the House of Commons has a right to ask the hon. Member to be candid and tell us what it will cost. He is said to be a shrewd man; he comes from a shrewd race. Cannot he tell us whether any estimate has been worked out; he must know how the Council proposes to work. The whole scheme must have been worked out. I hope he will let us have a clear estimate of the cost, and how the money will be expended. There is a growing habit on the part of Ministers, and it has become worse during the past 12 months, of springing Resolutions like this upon the House at this hour of the night, when Members are excited by other subjects in the hope that they will be passed without much consideration. That is one reason why the financial position of the country is so confused. We are asked to do things before we realise what we are doing, and it is about time some of us made our voices heard. Silence is apt to be misconstrued into some sort of agreement with the proposals of the Government. I protest mast strongly against the action of the Government. It is against all rules of sound finance and the interests of the country. It is a pity that these questions cannot be discussed earlier in the day when we need not curtail our remarks, as I am always obliged to do.


The first duty of the House of Commons is to be the guardians

of the public purse. Last Thursday, when the Prime Minister announced the business of the House, he mentioned that the new Education Bill would be taken. I asked him what it would cost. I asked him to state in round figures what it would cost. He was unable to give any idea of the amount.


When did he state that?


Last Thursday. Although to-night a smaller amount of money is involved, the principle at stake is the same. I would have liked to have moved a proviso to the Resolution that the total amount should not exceed £20,000, but as the question had been put I was too late. I did not want this discussion to end until I had had an opportunity of raising my voice against this growing habit of Ministers moving money Resolutions and Bills without knowing the cost to the country. I wish also to call attention to the ribald laughter from the Back Benches opposite. The Back Benchers try to force their Front Bench into putting into practice certain political theories. But some of us know what the credit of the country is and how important it is to maintain it and not to overspend [Interruption.] It is all very well for hon. Members opposite to laugh, but I mean, to-night and on every possible occasion, to make a protest against follies, extravagance and unnecessary expenditure of money merely for the purpose of trying to put into operation political theories which will not work.

Question put, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

The House divided: Ayes, 197; Noes, 57.

Division No. 299.] AYES. [11.44 p.m.
Adamson, Rt. Hon. W. (Fife, West) Bowen, J. W. Davies, Rhys John (Westhoughton)
Adamson, W. M. (Staff., Cannock) Brockway, A. Fenner Denman, Hon. R. D.
Addison, Rt. Hon. Dr. Christopher Bromfield, William Dickson, T.
Aitchison, Rt. Hon. Craigle M. Bromley, J. Dukes, C.
Alexander, Rt. Hon. A. V. (Hillsbro') Brooke, W. Duncan, Charles
Alpass, J. H. Brothers, M. Ede, James Chuter
Ammon, Charles George Brown, C. W. E. (Notts. Mansfield) Edmunds, J. E.
Arnott, John Brown, W. J. (Wolverhampton, West) Edwards, E. (Morpeth)
Aske, Sir Robert Buchanan, G. Elmley, Viscount
Barnes, Alfred John Burgess, F. G. Freeman, Peter
Barr, James Burgin, Dr. E. L. Gardner, B. W. (West Ham, Upton)
Batey, Joseph Caine, Derwent Hall- Gibbins, Joseph
Bellamy, Albert Carter, W. (St. Pancras, S. W.) Gibson, H. M. (Lancs, Mossley)
Benn, Rt. Hon. Wedgwood Charieton, H. C. Glassey, A. E.
Benson, G. Clarke, J. S. Gossling, A. G.
Bentham, Dr. Ethel Compton, Joseph Gould, F.
Bevan, Aneurin (Ebbw Vale) Daggar, George Graham, Rt. Hon. Wm. (Edin., Cent.)
Bondfield, Rt. Hon. Margaret Dalton, Hugh Greenwood, Rt. Hon. A. (Colne)
Grenfell, D. B. (Glamorgan) MacDonald, Malcolm (Bassetlaw) Sanders, W. S.
Griffith, F. Kingsley (Middlesbro' W.) McElwee, A. Sawyer, G. F.
Groves, Thomas E. McEntee, V. L. Shepherd, Arthur Lewis
Grundy, Thomas W. McKinlay, A. Sherwood, G. H.
Hall, F. (York, W. R., Normanton) MacNeill-Weir, L. Shield, George William
Hall, Capt. W. P. (Portsmouth, C.) McShane, John James Shiels, Dr. Drummond
Harbord, A. Malone, C. L'Estrange (N'thampton) Shillaker, J. F.
Hardie, George D. Mansfield, W. Simmons, C. J.
Hartshorn, Ht. Hon. Vernon Marcus, M. Smith, Alfred (Sunderland)
Hastings, Dr. Somerville Markham, S. F. Smith, Ben (Bermondsey, Rotherhithe)
Haycock, A. W. Marley, J. Smith, Frank (Nuneaton)
Hayday, Arthur Marshall, Fred Smith, Rennie (Penistone)
Hayes, John Henry Mathers, George Smith, Tom (Pontefract)
Henderson, Right Hon. A. (Burnley) Matters, L. W. Smith, W. R. (Norwich)
Henderson, Arthur, Junr. (Cardiff, S.) Maxton, James Snowden, Thomas (Accrington)
Henderson, Thomas (Glasgow) Melville, Sir James Stephen, Campbell
Henderson, W. W. (Middx., Enfield) Messer, Fred Strachey, E. J. St. Loe
Herriotts, J. Milner, Major J. Strauss, G. R.
Hirst, W. (Bradford, South) Morgan, Dr. H. B. Sutton, J. E.
Hoffman, P. C. Morley, Ralph Taylor, R. A. (Lincoln)
Hopkin, Daniel Morrison, Herbert (Hackney, South) Taylor, W. B. (Norfolk, S. W.)
Horrabin, J. F. Mort, D. L. Tinker, John Joseph
Hudson, James H. (Huddersfield) Moses, J. J. H. Toole, Joseph
Hunter, Dr. Joseph Mosley, Lady C. (Stoke-on-Trent) Tout, W. J.
Jenkins, W. (Glamorgan, Neath) Mosley, Sir Oswald (Smethwick) Turner, B.
John, William (Rhondda, West) Muff, G. Vaughan, D. J.
Johnston, Thomas Muggeridge, H. T. Viant, S. P.
Jones, Morgan (Caerphilly) Nathan, Major H. L. Walker, J.
Jowitt, Rt. Hon. Sir W. A. Naylor, T. E. Wallace, H. W.
Kedward, R. M. (Kent, Ashford) Oldfield, J. R. Watson, W. M. (Dunfermline)
Kennedy, Thomas Palin, John Henry. Wellock, Wilfred
Kinley, J. Paling, Wilfrid Welsh, James (Paisley)
Lang, Gordon Palmer, E. T. Welsh, James C. (Coatbridge)
Lansbury, Rt. Hon. George Perry, S. F. Westwood, Joseph
Law, Albert (Bolton) Pethick-Lawrence, F. W. Whiteley, Wilfrid (Birm., Ladywood)
Law, A. (Rosendale) Phillips, Dr. Marion Whiteley, William (Blaydon)
Lawrence, Susan Potts, John S. Wilkinson, Ellen C.
Lawson, John James Price, M. P. Williams, David (Swansea, East)
Leach, W. Ramsay, T. B. Wilson Williams, Dr. J. H. (Llanelly)
Lee, Jennie (Lanark, Northern) Rathbone, Eleanor Williams, T. (York, Don Valley)
Lees, J. Richards, R. Wilson, C. H. (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
Lewis, T. (Southampton) Richardson, R. (Houghton-le-Spring) Wilson, R. J. (Jarrow)
Lindley, Fred W. Riley, Ben (Dewsbury) Winterton, G. E. (Leicester, Loughb'gh)
Lloyd, C. Ellis Ritson, J. Wise, E. F.
Logan, David Gilbert Roberts, Rt. Hon. F. O. (W. Bromwich) Young, R. S. (Islington, North)
Longbottom, A. W. Romeril, H. G.
Lunn, William Rosbotham, D. S. T. TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—
Macdonald, Gordon (Ince) Rowson, Guy Mr. Parkinson and Mr. Charles
MacDonald, Rt. Hon. J. R. (Seaham) Salter, Dr. Alfred Edwards.
Acland-Troyte, Lieut.-Colonel Greene, W. P. Crawford Reynolds, Col. Sir James
Albery, Irving James Gunston, Captain D. W. Roberts, Sir Samuel (Ecclesall)
Baillie-Hamilton, Hon. Charles W. Hamilton, Sir George (Ilford) Rodd, Rt. Hon. Sir James Rennell
Balniel, Lord Hannon, Patrick Joseph Henry Ruggles-Brise, Lieut.-Colonel E. A.
Beamish, Rear-Admiral T. P. H. Hennessy, Major Sir G. R. J. Samuel, A. M. (Surrey, Farnham)
Beaumont, M. W. Herbert, Sir Dennis (Hertford) Smithers, Waldron
Birchall, Major Sir John Dearman Knox, Sir Alfred Somerville, A. A. (Windsor)
Boothby, R. J. G. Lamb, Sir J. Q. Southby, Commander A. R. J.
Bourne, Captain Robert Croft Llewellin, Major J. J. Thomson, Sir F.
Bracken, B. Lymington, Viscount Titchfield, Major the Marquess of
Braithwaite, Major A. N. McConnell, Sir Joseph Warrender, Sir Victor
Brass, Captain Sir William Margesson, Captain H. D. Wells, Sydney R.
Carver, Major W. H. Marjoribanks, E. C. Williams, Charles (Devon, Torquay)
Chadwick, Capt, Sir Robert Burton Monsell, Eyres, Com. Rt. Hon. Sir B. Winterton, Rt. Hon. Earl
Churchill, Rt. Hon. Winston Spencer Moore, Lieut.-Colonel T. C. R. (Ayr) Wolmer, Rt. Hon. Viscount
Cockerill, Brig.-General Sir George Morrison, W. S. (Glos., Cirencester) Womersley, W. J.
Colfox, Major William Philip Muirhead, A. J. Wood, Rt. Hon. Sir Kingsley
Davison, Sir W. H. (Kensington, S.) Oman, Sir Charles William C.
Ferguson, Sir John Percy, Lord Eustace (Hastings) TELLERS FOR THE NOES.
Ford, Sir P. J. Remer, John R. Sir George Penny and Captain
Euan Wallace.