HC Deb 05 April 1951 vol 486 cc495-502

9.22 p.m.

Mr. David Renton (Huntingdon)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 23rd February, 1951, entitled the Utility Pram Rugs (Manufacture and Supply) (Amendment) Order, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 303), a copy of which was laid before this House on 24th February, be annulled. May I say at once how delighted I am that this Prayer has come on at a reasonable hour, because it makes its discussion much easier for all hon. Members interested in it. The effect of the Order against which this Prayer is moved is to amend the principal Order, which is the Utility Pram Rugs (Manufacture and Supply) Order, 1950, by substituting a new schedule of maximum prices which may be charged.

The original Order came into operation on 10th July, 1950, and the amending Order came into operation on 5th March, 1951—a matter of some eight months. But the increases which are brought into operation are of 25 per cent. and upwards in these utility pram rugs, according to the sizes of the rugs and, of course, according to whether or not they are embroidered. That increase of 25 per cent. in eight months compares with an increase in the cost of living of only 3 per cent. in that same period. Therefore, on the fact of it, it would seem that the rise is an exceptionally large one and one which calls for some explanation by the Government before we are prepared to let them have this Order without any questioning whatever.

I am fully aware of the fact that utility pram rugs are made of wool and that the price of wool has risen by 200 per cent. in the same period. But surely the fact that the Government in their wool buying organisation have made a profit of some £12 million would have enabled a less drastic increase to be made in the prices of these very necessary commodities. I say that pram rugs are necessary. I speak as the father of two very tiny daughters. Pram rugs are necessary for the protection of infants against chills when they are wheeled out in winter, because if children are not protected from cold their fathers' lives become quite impossible.

These pram rugs are supplied under the utility clothing scheme, and, as I understand it, the object of that scheme, which I concede is of great value, is to keep necessary clothing and household goods as moderate in price as possible and so mitigate the rigours that there would otherwise be in the increased cost of living. So far as utility pram rugs are concerned, they are rigours which affect those young couples with growing families.

I should point out, because I think it is material, that my inquiries show that pram rugs are not referred to in the cost of living index which, as I say, rose by only four points, or 3 per cent., in the period, and that is a further reason why we should be meticulous in inquiring about such a large increase in price as 25 per cent. in eight months. Those are my main points—that there has been this large increase in a short time, that if the utility scheme has any real meaning at all the Government ought to be avoiding such large and sudden increases, and that it seems that such increases where wool is concerned could be avoided if the enormous profit of £12 million in one year were being used for the benefit of the consumers to a greater extent than that profit is apparently being used.

Those are my main points. I have two subsidiary points which I wish to make. First, I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether before these increases came into operation, and at the time that they came into operation, there were still available in this country quite considerable supplies of wool which had been bought last year at the old and cheap prices, because if so I cannot see the reason for increasing the prices until those old stocks are exhausted. My second point is this. Utility goods with fixed maximum prices should be confined essentially to necessaries. I have heard it said that pram rugs are necessities, and indeed I have been told by my wife that they are. We ourselves have two utility pram rugs.

This amending Order and the principal Order as well refer not only to pram rugs but also to the embroidery which can go upon them. I understand that the Government are losing revenue that they might very well get otherwise, by including the embroidery in the utility scheme. It seems quite an unnecessary concession for the Government to be making, and I should like to know what the Parliamentary Secretary has to say about that, because it seems to me that while they were amending the principal Order they could quite well have omitted the embroidery from the principal Order altogether. I should be obliged if I could have a reasoned reply from the Parliamentary Secretary to those questions.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. C. S. Taylor (Eastbourne)

I beg to second the Motion that has been so ably proposed by my hon. Friend.

Like my hon. Friend I am delighted that we are tonight discussing one of these Orders at a more appropriate time than we have done in the past. I do not want to keep the House late. My hon. Friend has made his points very clearly indeed, and very excellently. I also am the father of a number of children—four—and my only daughter is of an age to derive a certain amount of benefit from one of these utility pram rugs.

This Order, to my mind, is rather difficult to understand because of what my hon. Friend said about the embroidery. If hon. Members will look at the Order—I notice that there appear to be very few hon. Members present who have the Order with them—they will find that the prices are quoted "with" or "without" embroidery. If one looks at the first two items on the Order one sees that the first item is quoted without embroidery and is increased by 10½d. In the second item with embroidery there is an increase of 1s. Then we go a bit farther down and we find that the next item is quoted without embroidery at an increase of 1s. 0½ The next item is without embroidery at 1s. 2½d. increase, and the next item is without embroidery at 1s. 0½d. increase. Well, it does seem that there have been made illogical increases with or without embroidery, and they do not follow any logical sequence, and I should like to have some explanation from the Parliamentary Secretary about that.

My hon. Friend mentioned the most important point when he referred to the cost-of-living index figures. These figures are not quoted in the cost-of-living figures published by the Government. We know that the cost-of-living index figures do not include many of the essentials that the average family has to buy, and such an increase of 1s. on a 5s. 11½d. pram rug is quite out of proportion to any of the so-called explanations that are given from time to time in this House about the cost-of-living index figures.

I promised to be short. I do not want to keep the House late. We never do want to keep the House late on these Prayers. We move them because we want certain explanations, and we feel that we should receive those explanations, and that the House is entitled to receive them.

9.35 p.m.

Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)

As this Motion appears in my name, perhaps the House will pardon me if I say a word about it. Like hon. Gentlemen opposite, I am very glad indeed that it is possible to discuss this Motion at a reasonable hour. I am sorry for them that they did not see fit to pay any tribute to those of my hon. Friends who studied the Business for the week and who set this Motion down on a day when there was likely to be an opportunity for its early discussion.

Mr. Renton

The hon. and learned Gentleman may recollect that I put this Motion on the Order Paper on three separate occasions before Easter. On the last of those three occasions, the Leader of the House, with great courtesy, said that he would ensure that facilities were given for me to move this Prayer before the time expired. I therefore did not rush to the Order Paper the next morning, as the hon. and learned Gentleman and his friends did. I waited in the hope of hearing from the Leader of the House. I did not hear from him, and I have not heard from him yet, but I did see that the Prayer was put down in the name of the hon. and learned Gentleman, and so I added my name.

Mr. Bing

Now that we have reached such an agreeable state in dealing with these matters, I do not want to quarrel over this point. All that happened was that when the House was on the point of adjournment and it appeared that the Prayer had not been set down, I felt that an important Prayer such as this should have adequate notice on the Order Paper. Therefore, I put it down. No one can say that I pressed my own claim. I was only too willing not to catch Mr. Speaker's eye and to allow the hon. Gentleman, whose name stands seventh or eighth on the list, to put forward the matter.

I hope that, in the same spirit as we have dealt with this matter, we may collaborate on both sides of the House in dealing with Prayers of this sort that need discussion, at a time of night which gives hon. Members on both sides of the House who wish to speak about them an opportunity to do so in a reasonable way. I am glad that the Prayer has been brought up. I appreciate the way in which it has been moved and seconded, and I am glad that I have played some small part in seeing that it has come forward at a convenient hour.

9.37 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Rhodes)

This is all very pleasant. It is such a change from that celebrated night when there was so much coming and going. Some remarkable facts have come out in the course of this debate. It is very nice to know that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) is such a customer of the woollen trade. With regard to his inquiries about embroidery prices, I must ask him to apply himself to the Schedule, because he will see that the prices are set out in some detail with and without embroidery and, so far as I know, the "with" and "without" are clear enough and the prices opposite each item are specified. I do not see how we can have anything fairer than that.

With regard to the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Renton), I am glad that he has had his chance. He has had a quite adequate period of gestation for this Prayer and at last he has had the satisfaction of moving it. I am glad of that because I accepted an apology from him the first time, and I gave him one in return about three weeks later; but it is all very confused and I am glad that the matter has reached this stage.

May I say, in answer to the hon. Gentleman, that this is an amending Order. It is not a cloth Order, and it is not a garment Order; it is simply a pram rug Order.

Mr. Renton

Utility pram rugs.

Mr. Rhodes

Yes. It is not a blanket Order. The pram rugs are made by different manufacturers from those who make blankets, so we require to have an Order specially for them.

May I answer the points which the hon. Member has raised. He will see that there is one Schedule, taken out of the previous Order, which I cannot discuss. He must realise that this is the only rise in price there has been for utility pram rugs since 1947. Up to the time of this Order there has been an increase in the price of wool cloth of 30 per cent. There was consultation with the trade and, after a costing investigation by the accountancy advisers of the Board of Trade, it became clear at the end of last year that the manufacturers could not absorb any part of this 30 per cent. increase. Therefore, we made this Order, to come into operation on 5th March. It is as simple as that, and I wish that at Orders were just as simple. With that explanation, and to save the time of the House, I hope that the Motion can be withdrawn.

9.42 p.m.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

I have listened with great interest to what has been said about the increase in the price of wool. I think the Government ought to do a little more to keep down the cost of these things which are sending up the prices for the public. The hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) expressed great satisfaction that this debate was taking place at a reasonable hour. I would point out that this has nothing to do with us. It is entirely a matter for the Government. When the Government put on a long programme, as they did on the day off the Army Estimates which did not finish until after two o'clock, Prayers can be taken only after Government Business has ended. The hon. and learned Member was not quite as candid as he might have been, because he knows perfectly well why this debate has come about so early.

I am sorry that the President of the Board of Trade has not addressed himself to the fundamental issue involved in respect of all these orders leading to an increase in the cost of living.

Mr. Speaker

We are discussing only one Order.

Sir H. Williams

This is one of a series which authorises an increase in prices. I appreciate that the manufacturers would be sunk unless they were authorised to charge higher prices, but we are anxious that the Government should do something to prevent these increases in the cost of living.

9.44 p.m.

Mr. Renton

Although the Parliamentary Secretary replied to one important point raised in the debate, I must say that I found his speech as a whole, bearing in mind what it omitted, was "woolly," to use an expression which seems appropriate to the Order. He has not dealt with the point about the unevenness and illogicality of the particular prices. He has not dealt with my point that embroidery is a luxury and ought not to be part of the utility scheme. He has not dealt with the point about pram rugs not toeing included in the cost of living index. He has made no reference to what I thought was a rather constructive suggestion on my part, that the £12 million profit made by the Government out of someone in the buying and selling of wool should be used to mitigate the harsh rise in the cost of utility goods. I must confess I am very disappointed indeed but, on the other hand, we have had a very amicable debate which, at any rate, is some cause for satisfaction, and I shall not ask my hon. Friends to carry this matter to its logical conclusion, but shall leave it where it is at this moment.

Question put, and negatived.