HC Deb 14 December 1950 vol 482 cc1318-25
13. Mr. W. T. Williams

asked the President of the Board of Trade when he proposes to make some further references to the Monopolies Commission.

Mr. H. Wilson

Two new references were made to the Commission on 12th December. The subjects referred are, first, the supply and exports of certain semi-manufactured products of copper and copper-base alloys; and, secondly, the supply of insulin. In the first of these references, the Commission are asked to report only on the facts of the case; the reference of insulin is so framed as to require the Commission to report both as to the facts and as to their bearing on the public interest. I am circulating the full text of the references in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Sir Ralph Glyn

Can the President say how long these inquiries will take, in view of the extraordinary expenditure involved to the firms concerned?

Mr. Wilson

I think there is another Question on the Order Paper dealing with the speed of the work of the Commission.

Following is the text: (a) Semi-manufactures of Copper and Copper-based Alloys Whereas it appears to the Board of Trade that it is or may he the fact that conditions to which the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices (Inquiry and Control) Act, 1948, applies prevail as respects:

  1. (1) the supply of the following products, that is to say (a) Brass strip, (b) Brass sheets and circles, (c) Brass wire, (d) Brass tubes, (e) Beadings and mouldings of brass or of other alloys containing not less than 50 per cent. by weight of copper, (f) Brass rods and extruded sections, (g) Phosphor bronze wire strip and sheet, (h) Copper strip, (i) Copper sheets and circles, (j) Copper wire, (k) Copper tubes, (l) Copper sheathing, (m) Copper plates for locomotive fireboxes, (n) Copper rods and extruded sections, (o) Copper rollers for textile printing, (p) Copper tapes, bindings and jointing sleeves, (q) Nickel silver strip, (r) Nickel silver sheets and circles, (s) Nickel silver wire, (t) Yellow metal sheets and circles, (u) Yellow metal sheathing, (v) Yellow metal condenser plates, (w) Zinc strip;
  2. (2) exports of such products as aforesaid from the United Kingdom either generally or to any particular market.
Now, therefore, the Board in pursuance of Section 2 (1) of the Act, hereby refer to the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Commission for investigation and report the matters of such supply and exports. The Commission shall as respects such supply and exports investigate and report on—
  1. (1) whether conditions to which the Act applies in fact prevail, and if so, in what manner and to what extent;
  2. (2) the things which are done by the parties concerned as a result of, or for the purpose of preserving, those conditions.
Pursuant to Section 3 (3) of the Act, the Board of Trade think it proper in all the circumstances that the expression "supply" in relation to any such goods as aforesaid shall be confined to the supply of those goods by the manufacturer or importer thereof and this reference shall be construed accordingly. (b) Insulin. Whereas it appears to the Board of Trade that it is or may be the fact that conditions to which the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices (Inquiry and Control) Act, 1948, applies prevail as respects the supply of all forms and preparations of insulin. Now, therefore, the Board in pursuance of Section 2 (1) of the Act, hereby refer to the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Commission for investigation and report the matter of such supply. The Commission shall as respects such supply investigate and report on—
  1. (1) whether conditions to which the Act applies in fact prevail, and if so in what manner and to what extent;
  2. (2) the things which are done by the parties concerned as a result of, or for the purpose of preserving, the conditions;
  3. (3) whether the conditions in question or all or any of the things done as aforesaid operate or may be expected to operate against the public interest.

15. Mrs. Ganley

asked the President of the Board of Trade when the Monopolies Commission's report on dental goods will be published; and if he will make a statement about the report.

Mr. H. Wilson

The Report was published today. With my hon. Friend's permission, I will circulate a statement on it in the OFFICIAL REPORT, but I should like to take this opportunity of thanking the Commission for what is, I think, a very thorough and valuable piece of work. I hope all hon. Members will take an early opportunity of studying it.

Mr. Crosland

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that, if this Report does, in fact, condemn certain practices in industry, the relative Government Departments will issue an order to the industry to desist, and that we shall not have to wait for any general legislation, which will take a long time?

Mr. Wilson

The Report does call for the prohibition of certain practices which have been under review by the Association. The action to be taken is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, and we shall have to consider whether to take action in this particular case or to await the general legislation which is also mentioned in the Monopolies Commission's Report.

Following is the statement: The Report is a very detailed document and I cannot do it justice in a short space. I will, however, outline the Commission's main conclusions. On the factual side of their investigation, the Commission report that the conditions to which the Monopolies Act applies do prevail in the dental goods industry on two grounds. First, the Association of Dental Manufacturers and Traders of the United Kingdom is an association of persons who control more than one-third of the supply of dental goods and who so act as to restrict competition. In fact, the Association controls about 90 per cent. of the trade. Secondly, the group of companies headed by the Amalgamated Dental Company is a group of inter-connected bodies corporate within the meaning of the Act and controls more than one-third of the supply of the goods. I come next to the Commission's findings about the effect of these conditions on the public interest. As regards the Amalgamated Dental Company's group, the Commission find that "the group has used with moderation the great power which it has derived from its substantial hold on the market." Nevertheless, the Commission think that the prices of certain lines in which the group have a substantial monopoly have been unduly high and recommend that the group should reduce them. The Commission also criticise certain restrictive agreements made by the group and recommend that these should be reconsidered. As regards the Association of Dental Manufacturers and Traders, the Commission take the view that the Association's use of exclusive dealing and the collective boycott as devices for enforcing resale price maintenance have had undesirable results in restricting entry into the industry, and for this reason, among others, are against the public interest. The Commission recommend that these practices should be prohibited in this industry. I should mention that two members of the Commission make a reservation about this recommendation. They point out that, as is common knowledge, similar practices are carried on in other industries and that it is purely fortuitous that this industry should have been investigated first by the Commission. They suggest, therefore, that it would be wrong to enact ad hoc legislation against this industry, though they would not recommend that it should be exempted from any general legislation. Various other rules and regulations of the A.D.M.T. are criticised in the Report and the Commission recommend that the Association should review them. I do not propose to say much now about the implementation of the Commission's recommendations. The first essential is that all concerned should now study the Report in detail and in particular, that the industry itself, towards whom several of the Commission's recommendations are directed, should consider very carefully how best to respond to the Commission's findings. I should perhaps mention that in so far as it may become necessary to invoke the remedial sections of the Act, which can, of course, he applied to individual cases, the appropriate authority in this instance will be my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health.

16. Mrs. Ganley

asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he has now reviewed the machinery for dealing with inquiries by the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Commission; and with what result.

Mr. H. Wilson

Yes, Sir. I apologise for the length of this answer. The House will appreciate—particularly, I think, when hon. Members study the report on dental goods—that each of these inquiries demands the most scrupulous examination and consideration of a very large mass of evidence and that, in these initial stages of the operation of the Act, a new technique and procedure is being developed. There will also, I feel sure, be general agreement that, in view of the importance of the matters to be dealt with it would be wrong if thoroughness were to be sacrificed to speed. Nevertheless, I have felt it right to consider with the Monopolies Commission whether, in the light of experience so far, any action could now be taken which would facilitate the work of the Commission and, at the same time, relieve the burden on the part-time members which has undoubtedly been greater than was expected when they were appointed.

As a result of these consultations, I have decided to increase the membership of the Commission from eight to the statutory maximum of ten. I am glad to be able to tell the House that Professor G. C. Allen has accepted my invitation to fill one of these additional positions in a part-time capacity and has already been appointed to the Commission. I hope to announce a further appointment shortly. At the same time the Commission have, I understand, reviewed their procedure, and, on the invitation of the other Members of the Commission, two of the part-time members, Mr. C. N. Gallie and Mr. Gordon Stott, have agreed for the time being to devote a greater part of their time to the work, with special responsibility for particular inquiries. This change, together with the increase in the total number of members, will have the particular advantage of making it easier to proceed simultaneously with the different inquiries. With these new arrangements, the Commission have told me that they hope to be able to make a further four reports—after the report on builders' castings—by the end of next year, thereby completing the original six cases, and to make a start on two or three further cases.

Major Sir David Maxwell Fyfe

While, of course, the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that one will have to consider the answers, especially in the light of the report, is he aware that anything which will expedite this work and prevent the delays which my hon. Friend mentioned will have the support of the Opposition?

Mr. Crosland

While welcoming this small improvement in the work of the Commission, can my right hon. Friend say how far the enlarged Commission will be able to produce more reports per year in 1951 and 1952 than it would have been able to do without the addition of these two new members?

Mr. Wilson

Without the addition of these two new members and the arrangement for greater time to be given by two of the other members, we would not have had anything life four reports next year, but I would not like to forecast the position for 1952 because that depends on the amount of work the Commission will have to do.

Mr. I. J. Pitman

Has the right hon. Gentleman consulted his own Organisation and Methods Department with a view to looking at the organisation and staffing of this particular section of our activities? Is it not wise that if he is adding a couple of generals he should consider whether the adding of men and women of lower rank to do the advising, could not also be regarded as a most important factor for quick action?

Mr. Wilson

I am glad to see this enthusiasm on the part of hon. Gentlemen opposite for increases in Civil Service staffs where necessary—and in this case it certainly is necessary—but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we took the necessary steps to increase the staff before increasing the number of what the hon. Gentleman calls "generals."

Mr. Nigel Davies

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the report on management accounting by the Anglo-American Council on Productivity recom- mended that a separate, independent investigation should be undertaken to consider whether restrictive practices and price-fixing arrangements by trade associations should be made illegal, and is he prepared to follow this recommendation?

Mr. Wilson

I answered a Question on that last week, but, quite frankly, I think I ought to say that the time taken to deal with monopoly problems, which was agreed by both sides of the House following the war-time White Paper, has proved longer than many of us thought. It is a matter for consideration whether, instead of having every single case examined by the Monopolies Commission, we ought not to proceed to deal with certain bad practices on a wide front by legislation. I hope that hon. Members opposite who have shown this interest and enthusiasm will be similarly enthusiastic when we bring our proposals before Parliament.

Mr. Leslie Hale

Am I to understand my right hon. Friend as saying that he is expecting four more reports by the end of next year, and, if so, is that not an alarming delay? Will he say which reports will be forthcoming, and, approximately, on what date, and does not he think this is a very surprising and regrettable delay indeed?

Mr. Wilson

I think that when my hon. Friend sees the report on dental goods he will realise what a tremendous volume of work has to be undertaken by the Commission if, as I am sure the whole House would desire, there is to be a thorough, fatual and impartial report in order to ensure that the interests concerned are given full justice.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider this point, that if we are to try to obtain and apply general principles from the reports it is obviously most desirable for all of us to have a series of reports from which we can draw the principles? Therefore, will he realise that it is the view of every quarter of the House that we ought to do everything possible to expedite the getting out of further reports so that we can all make up our minds and make our contribution to the subject? May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the whole House will do all it can to help him?

Mr. Wilson

I am sure that view is accepted by the whole House and by the Monopolies Commission, but when hon. Members study the report published today they will see an implicit recommendation by the Commission that, in respect of certain of the practices they are dealing with, the House might like to consider general legislation rather than specific action.