HC Deb 12 April 1951 vol 486 cc1317-22

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Braine (Billericay)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 22nd February, 1951, entitled the Utility Apparel (Nurses' Uniforms) (Manufacture and Supply) (Amendment) Order, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 297), a copy of which was laid before this House on 23rd February, be annulled. The purpose of this Order is to amend the current Order, which dates back only to last August, relating to the manufacture and supply of nurses' uniforms. It increases the manufacturers' prices for all garments made from cotton cloth. This Prayer has a somewhat chequered history. It was first put down by some of my hon. Friends and myself just before the Easter Recess. It was never called because the proceedings of the House were adjourned in a somewhat unexpected and, if I may be permitted to say so, arbitrary fashion, but during the Recess certain hon Members opposite discovered the existence of the Order, and, no doubt finding something to question in it, put down a similar Prayer.

I was very glad of that, because it at once disposes of the charge that was made against hon. Members on this side of the House on the subject of the Prayers put down immediately before Easter. Indeed, I cannot but help feeling that the action of the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) and his hon. Friends was a recognition, somewhat belated, that hon. Members in this House have a duty sometimes to make a Minister answer to the House for his administrative actions. Indeed, the degree of competence displayed by His Majesty's Government in some fields recently hardly encourages the view that any Minister's actions should go unchallenged. How can we be sure that the price increases authorised in this Order are in fact justified unless we employ this particular method of extracting an answer from the Minister?

After all, these increases are not just modest ones. I observe that the price increases on sale by retail per garment of nurses' dresses made from cotton material are as much as 12½ per cent. On the other hand the price increases for nurses' aprons, which, I understand, are made from much the same sort of material, are of the order of 25 per cent. In the case of operating, midwifery or fever gowns, the price increases are 20 per cent.

I think that we are entitled to ask what subtle, mathematical calculations have led to such a wide range of difference in the price increases of articles made from the same material. Does this mean that some of the prices previously obtaining were too low, and that, irrespective of the need now to adjust prices because the raw materials of which these garments are made are costing more, opportunity is being taken to revise prices which were too low?

It is not sufficient for the Minister to say that these price increases have been agreed by the manufacturers. Can we be so certain, after the recent actions of the President of the Board of Trade in respect of discussions with manufacturers—action for which no doubt he has since had his knuckles rapped by the Prime Minister—that in this case they have had a square deal? Alternatively, we are entitled to ask whether a proper balance has been struck between the manufacturers and the consumers.

It is not irrelevant to remark that in most cases the increased burden which these new prices will entail will not be borne individually by nurses, since the general practice in the profession is, I understand, for them to be provided with uniforms for the use of which they pay a fixed annual sum. In this case the cost will be borne by the hospital and health authorities. One wonders, in passing, whether this fact was borne in mind when fixing the ceiling for the Health Services.

It will be appropriate for me to remark that the senior grades in the nursing profession will be very seriously affected by these price increases. I refer, of course, to matrons and chief male nurses, who receive a fixed annual allowance out of which they purchase their uniform. As a result of these increases that allowance will no longer be adequate. I mention that, wondering whether the Minister has realised that these increases for which he now seeks authority will bear harshly on one section of the nursing profession but not upon all. Some of us feel that fair shares these days mean fair shares of less and less, but not even that form of rough justice seems to obtain in this case. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to say whether that matter was considered when these particular price increases were being negotiated.

Mr. Messer (Tottenham)

Will the hon. Member say who fixed the rate of allowances for matrons and chief male nurses?

Mr. Braine

I think I am right in saying that the sums paid for the use of uniforms have been agreed through the normal Whitley Council machinery.

May I draw attention to one item in the Order, nurses' cloaks? I see that they are lined with woven cloth and wool and animal fibres. No price increase is contemplated in this connection How is that possible? How is it possible to peg the price of nurses' cloaks when every-else made from wool has rocketed up in price? Only a few moments ago the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), in a most interesting speech, referred to the way wool prices have rocketed. How is it possible, when such substantial increases are being made in the manufacturers' maximum prices of nurses' dresses, to peg the price of nurses' cloaks?

I notice that Members opposite who put down a similar Prayer just before Easter have withdrawn their names. It may be that discretion is the better part of valour, but I think we are entitled to ask whether they have received an assurance about the matters on which they were in doubt which has been denied to myself and my hon. Friends. I have no intention of keeping the House long and I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will be only too willing to answer some of the Questions I have put. I do not suppose he will answer them all, but I should like to have an answer to some, and I will summarise them for him.

First, why is there such a wide difference in price of articles using the same material? Secondly, can we be assured that these prices reflect the present position, and that a new amending order will not be placed before this House in the next week or so? I ask that question, because quite recently I spoke to another Prayer where no fewer than three price increases were authorised in a period of three months. Thirdly, has consideration been given to the inequitable effect of these price increases upon the nursing profession? Lastly, in view of the substantial rise in the price of wool, why has it been found possible to peg the prices of nurses' cloaks? I hope that on these few points the Minister will be able to give the House some assurance.

Colonel Clarke (East Grinstead)

I beg to second the Motion.

10.12 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine) has given the reasons for amending this Order, so I do not need to go over them. His first question was why is there a big range of difference in nurses' dresses? A dress takes up 4½ yards, an apron two yards but an operating midwifery gown requires up to five yards of 36-inch wide material. On the question of inequity, that would be considerably more if it were not for the utility range of garments being available. If nurses were forced to buy garments of a non-utility line, they would have to pay a great deal more money than they have to pay for the utility article.

The hon. Member also asked why was it that we pegged the price of wool. We have not pegged the price of wool. The new price has not been taken in consideration in this Order at all. He was quite right in making the point that we shall have to make another amending Order at a later date, and that is the answer to the hon. Member's Prayer.

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Braine

I am afraid that the Minister will not get away with it quite as easily as that. That kind of answer does not do him any service and reflects gravely upon the Government of which he is a member. He tells us that the reason for the wide difference is that in the case of nurses' dresses there is so much more material used than there is for aprons. The point, of course, is that I was talking about percentage increases in each case. If the same material is used, then the percentage increase in price should be the same in each case. No explanation was given by the Minister on that point. If he fobs the House off with that kind of argument, quite clearly he is concealing something.

I do not want to detain the House very long on this. Indeed, I had no intention of speaking again if the Minister had not made that somewhat foolish answer. He went on to say that I was right when I asked whether, in due course, there would have to be another amending Order in the case of nurses' cloaks. Why not have the amending Order now? Is it that the Government have so little control over these things that they have to put before the House a whole series of amending Orders? Does not that make complete nonsense of the claims that they once made, but no longer make, that they can plan our society? I suggest that the Minister should at least give us an explanation why there is this wide range of increase between the variety of articles in the Order.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. McCorquodale (Epsom)

I should like to ask the Minister one question with regard to the Schedule, which I do not quite understand. It is headed Manufacturer's Maximum Prices Then it says: On sale otherwise than by retail. Certain prices follow, starting with 26s. 6d. Afterwards, we have: On sale by retail, starting with 35s. 4d. I emphasise that the heading is "Manufacturer's Prices," and not retail or wholesale prices. Does that mean that the manufacturer who manages to sell his goods by retail has the 9s.

Mr. Rhodes

If the right hon. Gentleman looks at column 3, he will see that it is manufacturer's, wholesale, and that in column 4 it is retail.

Mr. McCorquodale

They may be retail prices but do they go straight to the manufacturer? Or is that 9s. kept by the shopkeeper? If it is, the heading is incorrect.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

We have had a very dusty answer by the Minister. We have gone to considerable trouble to get this Statutory Instrument explained and the House is entitled to some greater preparation than the Parliamentary Secretary has obviously given to this subject. I came along to listen to the answer. I had a pretty good idea of the sort of point that my hon. Friend was going to bring forward. It must be by leave of the House that the Minister can give further details and I hope that he will apply for it. We ought to give it to him so that he can do my hon. Friend the courtesy of an explanation.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I hope that the Minister will answer my hon. Friend's query. The Parliamentary Secretary has always been very courteous during these Prayer debates, no matter at what hour of the day or night they have been debated. He has been questioned on this Schedule about "manufacturers' maximum prices." There appears to be considerable variety in the prices in this Schedule. The manufacturer appears to get one price if he sells otherwise than by retail and another price if he sells by retail. Will the hon. Gentleman say whether he thinks that disparity is justified and whether our interpretation of this Order is correct. [Laughter.] It is a perfectly proper question.

Mr. Rhodes

It is perfectly clear. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well what it is, and so does the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine). In answer to the hon. Gentleman who talked about courtesy, I would say that I came prepared to answer this Prayer on Tuesday last, when I was informed that it was not to be taken, after the Table had been informed that it was going to be withdrawn.

Mr. Nicholls

Is it because of pique that we have this answer?

Question put, and negatived.