HC Deb 03 December 1951 vol 494 cc2177-86

10.53 p.m.

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Matches (Prices) Order, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 1526), dated 17th August, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th August, 1951, in the last Parliament, be annulled. This Order was made by the late Government, and laid on the 17th August. It was signed by the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes), who was then the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade. I am sorry that we do not have his company in the Chamber this evening. I am extremely glad that my hon. and learned Friend the present Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade is to reply tonight, because I know the great attention he has given in the past to keeping delegated legislation in proper shape.

I have no objection to the main purpose of this Order, which is to bring about a very slight increase in the price of matches. That is done by permitting manufacturers to remove a small number of matches from the boxes and to charge the same price as they did before. Apparently there has been no public outcry about that so far. Book matches are excluded from the Order. What the Order does is to specify maximum prices for two classes of matches. It specifies a maximum price for boxes of average content between 47 and 50 matches.

In the case of Swan matches it specifies a maximum price for boxes of average content of between 95 and 100 matches. I do not mind that. It specifies no other maximum price. That is where trouble arises, because paragraph 2 of the Order prohibits the sale of matches in boxes of any description where a maximum price has not been provided. It reads: A person shall not in the course of his business sell any matches in boxes of any description unless a maximum price is provided in this Order or any other Order made by the Board of Trade for matches in boxes of that description. So, people can sell matches of these two types, in boxes of 50, and in the case of Swan, in boxes of 100, but are pro- hibited from selling matches in boxes of any other kind.

This rather remarkable result arises; that it is unlawful, under this Order, for a person to sell boxes of matches of an average content of, say, 51 to 54 matches, even though he asks a price no higher than that permitted for boxes of an average content of between 47 and 50. I suggest that this is a quite ridiculous position. For a reason which I cannot understand this Order abolishes the provision in the previous Order of a sliding scale which covered all cases where prices had not been specifically fixed.

Under Statutory Instrument No. 1476, of 1949, there was a sliding scale, which covered the case of any box of matches for which there was no specific price fixed. But now, under this Order, if anyone wished to market boxes of matches of different content, they would have to go to the Board of Trade and get a new Order made to cover them by price control. I do not think that this prohibition can be regarded as merely incidental to price control because, if it had been, then the powers of Regulation 55AB, which is one of the Regulations invoked, would have been sufficient, because that Regulation does enable provision by Order to be made for matters incidental or supplementary.

But it will be seen that the Board of Trade went to the length of invoking another Regulation, not invoked before under the Matches (Control of Prices) Order—Regulation 55—that is, for the general control of industry. Therefore, my point is that if the Board of Trade considered it necessary to invoke Regulation 55, they could not have regarded this prohibition as merely incidental or supplementary to price control.

Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary would explain how that arose, although, of course, this was a matter for which he had no responsibility whatever. I fail to understand why this prohibition, which is quite gratuitous and unnecessary, should have been inserted. I would remind the House that under this Order, if anyone sells matches of a description, which is not specifically price controlled, however low the price he charges, he is committing an offence for which he can go to penal servitude for seven years.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

I beg to second the Motion. I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he will not consider again whether it is really necessary at this time and place to increase the restrictions imposed during the course of the preceding Parliament on matches not merely by bringing prices under control, but by restricting the small range of contents of matches which can be sold.

In the Order No. 1476 of 1949, which this Order replaces, there was for the first time a sliding scale introduced to enable any size of box to be given its proper control price. Is there any real reason why, because the basis is being changed from 50 matches a box to from 47 to 50 matches, that that sliding scale should not be included in the new Order? It appears that it is just as practicable to take the average content of between 47 and 50 matches as the basis on which a sliding scale is calculated as to take a box with an average content of 50 matches. If that be so, there is no reason at all why the new regulation should involve the abolition of that sliding scale and the severe restrictions on the number of types open to the match making industry. If one examines that restriction carefully, it will be seen that it is narrower than would appear at first sight.

A first reading of the Order appears to show that the choice is open between boxes of from 47 to 50 matches or from 95 to 100, but unless the matches are Swan Vestas they must be sold in boxes of from 47 to 50. The Order thus imposes on the trade, or any newcomer to it, one size of match box only. I want to ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade whether it is necessary and incidental to the purposes of price control that an additional and restrictive control should now be introduced.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. W. M. F. Vane (Westmorland)

My two hon. Friends have emphasized the reasons which lay behind the change, although my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) asked why it was necessary to have such a tight control on the size of the box in which matches can be sold. But why is it necessary to have any control on such an innocent domestic article like matches?

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Vane

Not many years ago the great match companies sold a variety of boxes. One was smaller than the standard size and one was substantially larger, and was a useful article to have in one's house so that visitors would not put them in their pockets. Beyond that large boxes were made, and marketed in all other countries but this, by the Swedish match company. Is it not a ridiculous and unnecessary control that causes hon. Members in this Chamber to be wasting their time discussing whether a box of matches should have 47 to 50 matches, or a Swan Vestas 95 to 100 matches? Surely manufacturers should be able to put matches in any box they like and charge what they like?

Mr. Nabarro

I share the tougher opposition to this Order as expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane). I regard it as fatuous in the extreme that this Chamber should, at five minutes after 11 o'clock at night, be talking about whether we should have 47 or 50 matches in a box. The blame rests fairly on the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) who is not in his place.

Mr. Shackleton (Preston, South)


Mr. Nabarro

Because that hon. Gentleman was responsible for the creation of this bureaucratic monstrosity on 17th August. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend, who succeeded the hon. Gentleman, has not yet found it necessary to quash unnecessary Government expenditure of this kind. My particular objection to this Order is that manifestly there is no scarcity of raw materials for making matchsticks, and there is no scarcity of chemicals for making match heads, but we have suffered from control on matches and various similar commodities for about 10 or 11 years.

It seems to me that the time is now propitious for His Majesty's Government to carry out a review not only of the whole of Government expenditure, but also of the spate of delegated legislation which has been thrust upon this House consistently and continuously for the last six years. Nobody has yet alluded to the fact that this is Statutory Instrument No. 1526 issued in the year 1951; and as it was issued on 17th August, pro rata that would mean something in the order of 2,300 Statutory Instruments in the course of the full year. I have no doubt whatever that 1,999 of them could adequately be disposed of if a price control of this sort were dispensed with.

It is not only a question of controlling the retail price of matches, the price to the consumer of matches, the wholesale price of matches, the number of matches that may be put in a matchbox, but, as the height of folly, the Board of Trade have now found it necessary to try to control the margin which a wholesaler may earn upon the re-sale of matches to a retailer and the quantity rebate that may be given for lots of less than 90 gross, for lots of between 30 and 90 gross, for lots of from 15 up to 30 gross, and for lots of less than 15 gross.

For many years I have been connected with commerce and with the normal channels of distribution in many trades and industries, and I have learned from long experience that the best way to get the cheapest price for a household commodity or any other manufactured article is to leave it to the channels of free trading distribution, leaving every stage in that chain of distribution to settle its own re-sale margins. By that means we might then be able to buy "Swan Vestas" matches in a shop for something less than 4d. or an ordinary proprietary brand, such as "This England's Glory" box which I have just taken out of my pocket, for something less than 2d.

I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies to the Prayer he will do something more than just respond to the technicalities raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor)—and I say that with respect to my hon. Friend. I want the Parliamentary Secretary to justify to the House why he has found it necessary to perpetuate the bureaucratic bumbledom initiated by his predecessor at the Board of Trade and why he does not find this moment timely to tell us that in future we shall have less of this delegated legislation and much more freedom within the trading community.

11.8 p.m.

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

I hope in the course of my few observations to cover the points raised by the various hon. Members who have spoken. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor), who gave notice of the grounds of his objection to the Order in a letter to "The Times."

He is quite right in thinking that the mention of Regulation 55 is due to article 2 of the Order, to which he objects. I agree with him that that article would not have been covered by Regulation 55 AB. In any event, the express power is given in Regulation 55 and it would have been wrong for the Board of Trade not to rely on the Regulation which gave the express power.

I come to the reasons for the Order and to its merits. The Order came into force on 24th August this year and its purpose was, more or less in the words that have been used, to leave the price unchanged but slightly to diminish the average number of matches in the box. This was to provide for the increased cost of manufacture since August, 1949. It was the first rise for over two years.

If matches were to be controlled at all, the hon. Member so far does not object to the Order, but he quite rightly points out that, while previous Orders had provisions for proportionate charges for boxes of different average contents, the present Order, against which he is praying, has a simple prohibition of the use of these boxes of different sizes. Let me tell him at once that the motive for the prohibition was simplicity in the Order. I know that does not cover his objection to it, but it may interest him to know that no one was injured by the prohibition, because so far as we know there were no boxes of different sizes that fell within this prohibition. The persons concerned were informed that if there were a desire to manufacture and sell matches in boxes of different sizes appropriate amendments would be made.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield and others who have spoken that a restriction on innovation is certainly not justified for a moment longer than its necessity can be shown, and the Board of Trade, had they thought it necessary to retain the control on the prices of matches, would have revised the Order in such a way as to remove the particular article to which objection was taken by my hon. Friend.

But we have to consider further whether it is any longer necessary to control the price of matches at all. There is no shortage of matches at present and the imports into this country of both matches and raw materials for their manufacture should in our opinion be sufficient to maintain the existing level of consumption. In these circumstances we were of the opinion, prima facie, that the time had come to withdraw altogether the control of the price of matches as being no longer necessary. We did, however, think it right to have inquiries made before doing so.

Since a large part of the supply of matches is in the control of one group of manufacturers and the supply of matches is now being investigated by the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Commission, the Board of Trade thought it right to obtain an assurance from the Society of British Match Manufacturers that if the Order were revoked the prices charged by their members would not be raised for some time ahead, and would not be raised thereafter without prior consultation, with the Board of Trade. That assurance has been obtained and it is. therefore, the decision of the Board of Trade that this Order should now be revoked. On that promise I would suggest that my hon. Friend should ask the leave of the House to withdraw his Motion.

Mr. Nabarro

Hear, hear. Freedom again.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Edward Shackleton (Preston, South)

It is very interesting, at this late stage of the evening, to see once again the workings out of the policy of the new Government. It is not my intention to cause further anxiety to the Chief Whip and follow the example of some of my colleagues by speaking long, but I think a rather serious step has been taken tonight. The Prayer was moved against this Order on a very narrow ground, namely, that a certain provision in the Order was undesirable and liable to restrict further development in the match trade.

No example was given of anybody wishing to have boxes of matches of different sizes, although I can well understand the hon. Member who said he liked smaller boxes so that he could get them away from his friends more easily. There might be a case for very small boxes and, indeed, very large ones, and probably hon. Members have enjoyed using those extra large matches which can be bought because of the pleasure it gave in striking them.

I can see the force of that particular argument, but remarks then developed into a wider field. One hon. Member complained of the provision in this Order of control over wholesalers' and retailers' margins, and an impassioned plea came for the "freeing" of the trade. I can only say that I hope the present Opposition may soon once again form His Majesty's Government, and that the hon. Member concerned will support us when we attempt to limit retail price maintenance. It is well known that retail price maintenance, as at present in force, is a gross interference with the freedom of trade, and I hope that we shall then get the support of the hon. Member.

Then, there was a sweeping attack on delegated legislation which, it was claimed, was practised by the late Government, and eventually the House was asked to withdraw the Prayer on the grounds that control over the price of matches was unnecessary, while the Parliamentary Secretary added that control should be maintained for the time being during investigation by the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Commission.

Mr. H. Strauss

I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not wish to misrepresent what I said. I stated that the time had come, in our view, to revoke this Order, but also stated that after making that decision in principle we thought that, in view of the fact that a large part of the supply of matches was in the hands of one group of manufacturers, an assurance regarding prices should be obtained before the revocation was made. That assurance has been given, and the revocation has been decided on.

Mr. Shackleton

Before the Report of the Monopolies Commission?

Mr. Strauss

It is to be made forthwith. I do not know when the Report of the Commission is coming out, but that will not prevent the Board of Trade from considering any action recommended in the Report.

Mr. Shackleton

This really seems quite extraordinary. It is surely extraordinary that the Parliamentary Secretary should take this definite action pending the Report which might, in fact, recommend something completely different. This Commission is sitting to investigate this subject, and what report will come from it, I do not know. I cannot say, of course, whether the hon. and learned Parliamentary Secretary has any knowledge of that, but it may reveal a very strong case for the maintenance of some sort of control. It is surely extraordinary that there should be this rush to take off a perfectly harmless control which does not inflict hardship on the manufacturers concerned, and which may, indeed, be essential for the protection of the public against profiteering.

Mr. Nabarro

The hon. Member is making a very sweeping attack on what has been said. Surely he must recognise that the operation of any control costs public money. To operate that match control means that a large number of Board of Trade inspectors have to snoop all round the country in the manufacturers' premises, in the wholesalers' premises and in the retailers' premises. Why should the taxpayers' money be spent unnecessarily in the operation of a useless Statutory Instrument?

Mr. Shackleton

I do not differ from that point, but the case has yet to be made that this control is not necessary. The Minister should have waited for the report of the Monopolies Commission and we ought then to have had an opportunity to consider the situation in the light of that opinion.

11.21 p.m.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

I was delighted to hear what the Parliamentary Secretary had to say. I only wish that the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) had taken the trouble to consult the Treasury before lie made the Order. I have here the Finance Act, 1940. the last Act to alter the duty on matches. There was a duty on containers of not more than 10 matches and another on containers of more than 10 but not more than 30. The group which we are considering tonight is that with more than 30 but not more than 50.

After that we are allowed to have boxes of matches as large as we like, and the duty is 8s. 4d. for 144 containers. They are not called boxes in the Finance Act. I see no reason why we should not have boxes of matches of any size anybody wants. What the hon. Member was objecting to was the fact that the sale of books of matches is now prohibited.

11.22 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

I observe that at the end the Order revokes a previous Order. If it is intended, as it appears to be intended, to revoke this Order, why did not the Government do it by a simple Order instead of keeping us here all night listening to the views of the Tory anarchist party on the control or decontrol of matches and the right number in a box, book or other container?

11.23 p.m.

Sir J. Mellor

I should like to thank the Parliamentary Secretary for the very satisfactory answer which he has given tonight and to congratulate him upon this very useful step in the removal of controls. I only wish that he may proceed to remove many more controls in the course of his tenure of office. In the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.