HC Deb 29 June 1948 vol 452 cc2045-50

In determining whether any conditions to which this Act applies or any things which are done by the parties concerned as a result of, or for the purpose of preserving, any conditions to which this Act applies, operate or may be expected to operate against the public interest, all matters which appear in the particular circumstances to be relevant shall be taken into account and, amongst other things, regard shall be had to the need, consistently with the general economic position of the United Kingdom, to achieve—

  1. (a) the production, treatment and distribution by the most efficient and economical means of goods of such types, in such volume and at such prices as will best meet the requirements of home and overseas markets;
  2. (b) the organisation of industry and trade in such a way that their efficiency is progressively increased and new enterprise is encouraged;
  3. (c) the fullest use and best distribution of men, materials and industrial capacity in the United Kingdom; and
  4. (d) the development of technical improvements and the expansion of existing markets and the opening up of new markets.—[Mr. Wilson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Wilson

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This is an attempt on our part to define the public interest for the purposes of this Bill. In the Second Reading Debate, and in the Committee stage, hon. Members opposite pointed out that the phrase "public interest" was used a number of times and that it was desirable to define it. I made an attempt on Second Reading to define it in general terms. The right hon. and learned Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) put down an Amendment in Committee of which I accepted the principle, and I accepted the task of trying to find a suitable definition of "public interest." The new Clause I am now proposing is the best we can do. I hope it will meet the requirements of the right hon. and learned Member, who convinced us of the need of such a Clause, and I hope the House will be prepared to agree to it.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for adopting the point of view I urged, that public interest should be defined. Like every parent, even of words, I have a slight preference for my own form which I put forward in the Committee stage, but, as the right hon. Gentleman has accepted the principle and has embodied a considerable number of the ideas I suggested in my Amendment, I do not suggest that the House should negative the new Clause, or make the Amendments which would be necessary in order to give effect to my suggestions. Therefore, while not in any way wishing to prejudice what will be said by my hon. Friends if you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, call Amendments put down to the new Clause, I again wish to thank the right hon. Gentleman for accepting the principle of definition which I advanced.

Mr. Pickthorn

May I ask if you intend to call my Amendments to the proposed Clause, Mr. Deputy-Speaker?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

Mr. Speaker has not selected the Amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn).

Mr. Pickthorn

Perhaps I might explain the purpose of the Amendments. I admit this is rather difficult and may appear rather trifling, but I do not think it is so in the upshot. If my Amendments were agreed to, the new Clause would read, leaving out the necessary verbiage of the draftsmen, as follows: In determining the public interest, amongst other things, regard shall be had to the need to seek resolutely and continuously the production of goods of such types … as shall best meet requirements. I think that all the points I wish to put might have been erected on an Amendment to exchange "shall" for "will." If the word "will" is put here, it is merely temporal in effect and the whole Clause assumes that somewhere there is a blue print of the public interest. It may be a wholly Socialist conception that the public interest shall be everything controlled and managed by the State, or the opposite, that nothing shall be controlled or managed by the State. The form of words as here printed assumes that there is a standard somewhere, just as there is a standard yard. That assumption is objectionable because it is untrue, and there is a practical objection because it attempts to set off the new law on the wrong foot. The most we are entitled to ask about public interest is, is this designed, and reasonably designed, to produce all the good things under (a), (b), (c) and (d)? We are not entitled to ask, is this in fact such as will produce those things, all those things, and nothing but those things? I submit that the words as drafted make the second demand necessary.

I wish we had before us the statement which the Chancellor of the Exchequer read out after Question time today, because that would have marked very neatly the contrast between the way in which this Clause is drafted and the way in which I think it ought to be drafted. It was difficult to follow the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but one thing, I think, must have struck everybody who listened to it, and that is how carefully he said over and over again that the obligation was to do this or that calculated to achieve the maximum of something or other—not that we were bound to do something which would achieve X, but that what we are bound to do is to do something which is calculated to achieve the maximum possible of X.

That is quite a different thing, and that, in my submission, is the proper way to approach the question of the public interest. Once that question is approached in this way of trying to make it an obligation to achieve X—to achieve the public interest, the whole public interest and nothing but the public interest—we are, in fact, getting a rigidity and an extreme doctrinairism which I believe will make this Clause either nugatory—something which is just mere pious uplift—or will make it excessively constrictive.

I could explain the point at very great length. [Laughter.] Well, I could, and if hon. Gentlemen opposite provoke me, I will. It is not a perfectly simple point, especially when one does not know what proportion of one's audience has taken a previous interest in the Bill. I will not say I hope that I have put the point in such a way as to convince, but I hope I have put the point in such a way that it is clear what the point is. I hope it will be admitted that it is a real point, and I hope also that we may have some answer on that point and strictly upon it.

Mr. Shepherd

I do not know whether it is your intention, Major Milner, to call my Amendment to the proposed new Clause.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker


Mr. Shepherd

In that case, I hope you will permit me to make a number of references to it. No one can say that the definition of "public interest" in this new Clause is comprehensive. I feel that the quality of goods is important, because there are many attempts now being made by the Government to restrain people from making goods of inferior quality. The utility scheme, for example, tries to enforce a standard of production in the furniture trade. Obviously, the time will come when the utility scheme for furniture will have to go by the board and in its place there will have to be some other means of maintaining a standard of quality.

It may well be that the means which industry will have to adopt to maintain a standard of quality which is very definitely in the public interest, will be of a restrictive nature. All I want to stress is that in determining whether a certain form of restrictive practice is or is not in the public interest, regard ought to be paid by the Commission to whether that restriction is designed to maintain a standard of quality. If it is, obviously it ought to receive very considerable consideration, and the Commission ought not to pronounce against it without a good deal of investigation.

5.15 p.m.

I am very pleased that the Government have seen fit to accept the suggestion made, I believe, in the first place, by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) in defining the public interest. With my right hon. and learned Friend, I believe that his definition is better than that arising from the combined efforts of the Board of Trade. We cannot quarrel about points of detail, because the important thing is that in this Bill we have an attempt to define the public interest in relation to trade and industry. To my mind this is a very substantial step forward. We are leaving behind the era of uncontrolled competition, and we have got to put in its place something different. I believe that some standard of public interest such as is contained in this Clause is a real step forward. I am glad to think that this progressive step came not from hon. Members opposite but from this side of the House.

I hope that when the Commission reports, it will have regard to the standards which are here laid down. When it decides that a practice is against the public interest I hope it will measure the extent to which it is against the public interest according to the standards which have been laid down in this Clause. In that way, a good deal of dissension will be avoided. Those who are trying to take an objective view of the position will be able to see more readily where the truth lies. While it is not possible to put this into the Bill, I hope the Commission will in all cases recognise that requirement and indicate how their judgment compares with the standards contained in this Clause.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

I was extremely amused to hear the various attempts to define the phrase "public interest." I was certainly relieved to hear my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) say that he thinks that this Clause will meet the point, but I wonder who will decide what is the public interest. Let me take one simple illustration. It is quite possible that the hon. Member for West Ealing (Mr. J. Hudson) might think that it is in the public interest to have much more and much better beer. On the other hand, the Chancellor of the Exchequer might take precisely the opposite point of view. That is a possibility. In the circumstances, obviously the view of the Chancellor of the Exchequer would prevail. On the other hand, the situation might be the other way round. I am only using that as a simple illustration of the fact that there are vast differences of opinion in this country as to what is the real public interest regarding any trade or business which may be affected by the provisions of this Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bucklow (Mr. Shepherd), in an interesting and able speech, said that at present it is rather in the public interest to have more restrictive practices, although I think there is a very considerable feeling for reversing that opinion and for having a great deal more competition. One of the objects of the Clause is to see that competition is fair in certain ways, as well as to enable certain other things to happen. For that reason, I strongly support my hon. Friend the senior Burgess for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) in saying that instead of the rather loose wording of this Clause, it would have been better if some of the great care which was taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the statement which he read earlier in the House today, had been put into the wording of this Clause.

Perhaps I might have the attention of the President of the Board of Trade. I quite appreciate that he is not capable of taking in a sustained argument for any length of time. I appreciate the difficulty and how quickly his mind gets tired of these matters. It might be as well at some other stage of this Bill to get the Chancellor of the Exchequer or a Law Officer to try to give a clearer and better definition on the lines of those already given for other purposes, and insert it in this new Clause. I make that suggestion wholly in the interests of the Bill, because I am sure that in the immediate future there will be great troubles and difficulties in connection with the public interest. There will be many decisions given, and many of them will be very far from reflecting public pleasure in the Government.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.