HC Deb 08 March 1951 vol 485 cc894-901

4.10 a.m.

Mr. Braine (Billericay)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 2nd February, 1951, entitled the Utility Apparel (Waterproofs) (Amendment No. 2) Order, 1951 (S.T., 1951, No. 167), a copy of which was laid before this House on 3rd February, be annulled. I have not been a Member of the House very long, but I must confess that the experience of the last few hours has been very revealing. I have been here long enough, however, to observe that there seem to be too many of these Statutory Instruments affecting the daily lives of the citizens of this country which pass almost unnoticed. During the course of our debates this morning our temerity in putting down these interrogatory Prayers has been challenged. I offer no apology for putting down this particular Prayer, since it is the duty of Parliament—[HON. MEMBERS: "Vote"]. It does not lie in my mouth to educate hon. Members opposite. It is the duty of Parliament to probe and inquire into the actions of Ministers. I suggest that to do so in this particular instance is most revealing. I am not going to take the House back very far.

The original Order in this case was made in August of last year, which is not so very long ago. It provided for an increase in manufacturers' maximum prices. But so little control does His Majesty's Government exercise over the march of events that their decrees are out of date before the ink is dry upon the Minister's signature, and by November of last year it became necessary for a further Order to be issued. The situation had deteriorated to a point where it became necessary within the space of a few months for further increases in manufacturers' prices to be imposed. Now, three months later, a further Order is to be made.

It may be that these new prices are fully justified. Prices of raw materials are increasing at such a rate that manufacturers are continually complaining of delays by the Board of Trade in adjusting the prices they are permitted to charge to meet changing circumstances. It was very refreshing of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade to admit, as he did from the Despatch Box this morning, that that was so and that already this particular Order may be out of date. What guarantee can there be, in the light of the experiences of the last few months, that it will not become out of date in a week or so from now?

If this proves anything at all, it shows that, despite all the immense planning powers that right hon. Gentlemen possess, despite the development councils that they have fastened upon industry, they exercise no control over the things which really matter. They cannot control the prices of raw materials. The Order which this Prayer seeks to annul, and the circumstances in which it was made, demolish any case that may be made on the other side of the House for what is called planned economy. I hope I shall be forgiven for straying perilously near the bounds of order if I read a relevant quotation from a speech made by the Lord President of the Council as recently as 1946. He said then: The real problems of statesmanship in the field of industry and economics are to see trouble coming and to prevent ourselves getting into the smash. We are determined that we are not going to be caught unawares by blind uneconomic forces under this administration. Yet that is precisely what has happened. The public now know the value of outpourings of that kind.

I invite the House to consider some of the increases authorised under this draft Order. Last August, for example, the manufacturers' price to the retailers of one kind of waterproof coat was 54s. 2d.; it has now jumped to 60s. 9d. If one translates that into what the poor, harassed public has to pay in the shops, it means that a coat which cost 72s. 6d. six months ago will now cost 81s.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

Might I emphasise to the hon. Member that these are maximum prices, and there is nothing which prevents the shopkeepers from charging less than the maximum prices.

Mr. Remnant (Wokingham)

Except the price of the materials.

Mr. Braine

That is an interesting point. Indeed, I went into a shop yesterday in order to make certain inquiries about these matters, and I found that there were a number of gentlemen's raincoats selling at prices below the maximum. For the purpose of my argument, however, I am taking the maximum prices permitted by the Board of Trade. In the case of youths' waterproof coats, the retail price is increased from 67s. 1d. to 75s. an increase of nearly 8s., while in the case of lightweight boys' and girls' mackintoshes, the increase is from 25s. 4d. to 27s. 5d. I understand—and this is relevant to the argument I am advancing —that since last autumn there has been a general increase in the price of most children's garments of about 20 per cent., and that by next autumn the increase will be of the order of 30 per cent. I speak as one directly concerned. I am the father of three small, rapidly-growing sons, and I know from experience how difficult it is to feed and clothe them, but how much more difficult must it be for the millions of families in this country whose incomes are smaller than mine?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member must come back to the Order.

Mr. Braine

With great respect, I should have thought it was relevant to discuss whether these price increases are justified.

Mr. Speaker

No; that is a general question. These are not necessarily increases; they are maximum prices. We cannot discuss, on an Order, general considerations like that which the hon. Member mentions, I am afraid.

Mr. Braine

I am grateful to you for your guidance, Mr. Speaker, and hon. Members opposite should also be grateful to you, for I was about to reveal one or two matters which would have been extremely uncomfortable for them, at a time when they are becoming increasingly uncomfortable about other things.

Nevertheless I suggest that the House is entitled to an assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary that there will be no more increases of this kind. Of course, the House is well aware that he can give no such assurance. I do not speak in a personal way of him, but the fact is that the whole Front Bench opposite are tired and dispirited and utterly at the end of their tether. If, however, an assurance of that kind cannot be given, then these Statutory Instruments are worse than useless. But at least the Minister should tell us whether the Order reflects the existing situation. Is it not already out of date? It is because I sense that this Order is out of date and that Instruments of this kind are a sign of despair and a confession of failure on the part of the Government that I pray for its annulment.

4.20 a.m.

Squadron Leader Burden

I beg to second the Motion.

I want to draw attention to what I believe to be an important aspect of these price increases. We have to understand that in regard to a great many garments not only is the price being increased but the quality is being debased. I am concerned that in this Order there is no description of the cloth from which these waterproofs are manufactured. It gives numbers, but they in themselves mean nothing whatever to the public. In fact, there is a loophole for abuse through not marking garments with the name of the material from which they are manufactured.

I should like the Minister to consult with his advisers and friends in the wool trade, in which he has considerable experience, to endeavour to bring some system of marking into operation. Then if a garment is made of wool and rayon, or wool and cotton, or wool and fibre, that fact can be shown in these Orders; and it will be seen if the material is not wool. I suggest that the present system is misleading the public. In view of the rising prices, there is a case for seeing that the public are protected against debasements of quality occurring at the same time as increases in price. I believe the Australian and New Zealand Governments have already complained about cloth which includes rayon and cotton being described as "wool." They regard that as objectionable because it is a misrepresentation of the term "wool."

Is it not possible for the Minister to see his fellow members of the wool trade to ensure that in future these terms are not abused by the infusion of material other than wool in the garments? I believe all hon. Members will agree that every effort should be made to maintain standards and to enable the public to know what they are buying. Certainly they did not know what they were buying in 1945, but we shall see what we can do about that at the next election. In America they have a strict system of labelling, and I am sure it is not beyond the ingenuity of hon. Members opposite to do what is being done in America, particularly if they are anxious to ensure that the people of this country are not to be constantly led up the garden path.

4.24 a.m.

Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)

Although my name is attached to these Prayers, I have not had a chance of intervening in the debate mainly because I had not a stock of points of order to put to you, Mr. Speaker, to enable me to put my view in that form. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) put our names to these Prayers because we felt that there should be a certainty that the House would be enabled to decide immediately on this question. It is very undesirable that the trade should be held in suspense in these matters. It would be wrong for hon. Members to say that a discussion would be on a certain day and then to take the subject off the Order Paper.

I intervene now because of the serious attack made on the trade by the hon. and gallant Member for Gillingham (Squadron-Leader Burden). If he really feels that the trade has behaved in this way, then he should take the honest step and divide the House.

Squadron-Leader Burden

It is not a question of the trade at all. The description of the cloth is made by the Board of Trade and not by the trade associations.

Mr. Bing

It seems that the motives between the hon. and gallant Member and myself are different. My hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke and I added our names to the Prayer because we thought that if the matter had been looked at impartially, it would have been unnecessary for the Minister to intervene. Hon. Members could have formed their own views. But that is not the attitude of hon. Members opposite. They say that the Government have behaved improperly, and that something very wrong has happened. Well, if that is so, there is a fine array of Whips on the Front Bench. Make use of them.

This is, after all, the policy of the trade associations and I sometimes think that we are yielding too much to their views. My hon. Friend was quite right——

Squadron Leader Burden

What evidence can the hon. Member produce that the trade associations are responsible for Government instructions?

Mr. Bing

The hon. and gallant Member really should study HANSARD. He should, for example, look at the Questions asked by his hon. Friends before he makes speeches about things on which, one would think, they know far more than he does. He must make his own speeches in his own way and in his own time, but I would remind him that the hon. Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson), far from objecting to these increases, pressed for an increase on 15th February—as recently as that. He asked why utility cotton drill had been increased by about sixpence a yard while there had been no price increase to manufacturers whose raw material prices had increased. Hon. Members opposite should decide which way they are going to have it. Are they going to vote with the hon. Member for The High Peak or not?

If hon. Members put down seven Prayers, they should have the courage to vote on them. I feel that in some ways I can speak, not unfairly I hope, on behalf of all those who are praying, because my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke and I are the only two hon. Members whose names appear on all of the Prayers; and we feel there should be one Division. If we are to have a Division, why move the other Prayers? What point of principle is so important that long discussion is necessary, although it is not worth while voting on?

Mr. James Stuart (Moray and Nairn)

May I give a very brief answer? Quite shortly, one can pray in order to receive an explanation from the Government. Is not that the whole object of debate, and is it necessary to divide, provided that the Government are intelligent enough to give a reasoned answer?

Mr. Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

On a point of order. May I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will call the attention of Mr. Speaker to articles in the London Press, and notably the evening newspapers yesterday, in which it was clearly stated that the reason for putting down these Prayers was not to obtain information but to harass and wear down the Government by keeping a handful of Conservatives here with a large number of Government supporters?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

That is not a point of order.

4.30 a.m.

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

If I were the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing), I should not worry about the interruption of the hon. and gallant Member for Gillingham (Squadron Leader Burden), because the hon. and gallant Member was referring to the wrong Order. He was referring to a cloth Order, and not a garment Order. If the hon. and gallant Member had spoken the last time there was a Prayer on that subject, he would have been in order, but he is not in order on the matter we are discussing this morning. The objects of the Order are to increase the maximum prices of most utility waterproofs to conform with increases in the price of cotton cloth, to increase the allowances for detachable hoods, to specify three additional rayon cloths for all single texture utility waterproofs, except cycle capes, men's and youths' coats, girls' capes with hoods and boys' and girls' sou'westers.

In reply to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine), may I say that, with regard to his last question, we refused to raise the maximum prices for minor garments until reasons had been received from the trade. The reasons have been sent in by the manufacturers with regard to some garments and we are reviewing them.

Mr. Braine

Before the hon. Gentleman resumes his seat, may I ask him a question. The whole object of my putting down this Prayer was to ascertain whether, since in six months there have been three increases of price——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If the hon. Member is asking a question, he may proceed, but he appears to be making a statement.

Mr. Braine

May I put my question in this way? In the last six months there have been three increases of price. Can the Parliamentary Secretary give the House an assurance that the Order which is placed before it now, is not already out of date, and that in a month or two months or three months, there will not be a further Order?

Question put.

The House proceeded to a Division; but no Members being willing to act as Tellers for the AyesMr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER declared that the Noes had it.