HC Deb 10 February 1954 vol 523 cc1184-92
Mr. Michael Foot (Plymouth, Devon-port)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to reduce the retail price of sparking plugs.

I am encouraged in moving the Motion by the enthusiastic and indeed unanimous support which was given by the House yesterday to the Price Control (No. 1) Bill. I think those who were present in the House yesterday, and indeed the decision of the House, proved that no party issue was involved in the matter at all. The House of Commons did what it is often invited to do—it disposed of the matter rather in the spirit of a Council of State. At least for a few minutes during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member forGravesend (Sir R. Acland), who introduced the Bill yesterday, we were spared some of those scenes which have caused such pain to all of us during recent weeks—those scenes in which the two Front Benches belabour one another with such savage and relentless fury. I hope that it is in this different spirit that my Bill will be treated in all the processes through which it will be required to go.

The subject with which I shall deal in the Bill concerns not only a question of gross overcharging but also a significant issue of individual freedom. Between the dates of 3rd October and 10th November of last year a series of advertisements appeared in the Manchester newspapers advertising a number of motor car accessories, and these accessories were advertised for sale at prices well below the normal prices charged.

Some of the accessories involved were sparking plugs, anti-freeze mixture, tyres and such other commodities, and if this Bill, dealing with sparking plugs, receives the reception which I hope it will, then the other matters can perhaps be dealt with later. These advertisements were placed in the Manchster newspapers by a Mr. Geoffrey Oliver Symes, who is managing-director of a Manchester company known as the Vollmax Battery Co.

He had placed these advertisements with the purpose of carrying on his business. His business, as regards sparking plugs, is roughly as follows. The normal price charged for sparking plugs over the country is 5s. or 5s. 6d. each. Mr. Symes was advertising sparking plugs which he sold at 3s. 6d. or 3s. 9d. These same sparking plugs were sold to the garages and distributors sometimes at 3s. and sometimes at 2s. 10½d. According to Mr. Symes, however, the manufacturing cost of the sparking plug is somewhere in the region of 9d. or 9½d. In any case, the offer made in the advertisement was 3s. 6d. or 3s. 9d. for sparking plugs which normally cost 5s. or 5s. 6d.

What has happened since? Within a few weeks, Mr. Symes received a letter from the British Motor Trade Association. It was a registered letter, and Mr. Symes says that it looked very much like a summons. I will quote to the House a sentence or two from the letter which he received from the British Motor Trade Association. The letter said: We have to inform you that facts have been brought to the attention of this Association with which your name is associated and which will be brought before the price protection committee or adjudicator. Your attendance is invited. We would warn you, however, that should you not attend the matter will be inquired into in your absence and such action decided upon as deemed proper. Mr. Symes is not a member of the Motor Trade Association or any body associated with it, but he decided to accept this courteous invitation, and he came to London, at considerable expense to himself, in order to appear before this committee. Not only did Mr. Symes present himself before the committee, but reporters from seven national newspapers went along with him. Mr. Symes was admitted to the proceedings of the committee, but the seven reporters were excluded.

After the proceedings had taken place a spokesman of the British Motor Trade Association stated that no statement could be issued on the proceedings that had taken place owing to the risk of legal action. Fortunately, Mr. Symes was able to give his account of what happened at these proceedings. He was brought before the adjudicator, a certain Sir Grattan Bushe, and the adjudicator, according to Mr. Symes, asked him the simple question whether he would, in. future, give an undertaking that he would sell his sparking plugs and other commodities only at the price fixed by the ring. Mr. Symes replied that he would not do so, as he would regard that as a betrayal of faith with his customers, whereupon the adjudicator came to his judicial decision and decided, strangely enough, in favour of the Motor Trade Association. He informed Mr. Symes that there was no other course open to the adjudicator except to place Mr. Symes on the "stop list,"which meant that every effort would be made by other members of the Association to prevent Mr. Symes from receiving commodities from members of the Association.

Fortunately, I am glad to say, Mr. Symes has not been put out of business by this well-contrived piece of tyranny although clearly, from the action of the adjudicator, that was the whole purpose of the operation. However, Mr. Symes has not been put out of business. He is continuing his fight against the ring, and I hope that the vote of this House of Commons today will encourage him in his endeavours. But I should like to ask whether it is proper that this Star Chamber should be allowed to continue. We have the right to ask whether it is proper that motorists should be fleeced and honest men like Mr. Symes be put in jeopardy, or possible jeopardy, of their livelihood because we refuse to act.

Mr. Symes, along with a few others, has in recent years been fighting a ring composed of four main firms which have held pretty well a monopoly position in this industryfor something like 25 years. The figures are, so far as we can discover them up to date, that something like 90 per cent. of all sparking plugs sold in this country are sold at the ring prices and, therefore, the small men fighting the ring have not yet been able to make very great headway, although they are certainly manufacturing sparking plugs well below the price fixed by the ring.

It may be said: Why not leave the whole of this matter to the Monopolies Commission? They were appointed to deal with this sort of subject. I understand that the Monopolies Commission has made some investigation into these cases, but it has been agreed on all sides of the House that the procedure of the Monopolies Commission is notoriously slow, and although the members of the Monopolies Commission are undoubtedly trying to discharge their functions as well as they can, they have an enormous accumulation of cases to deal with. But this is a clear case that could be dealt with immediately.

Since I gave notice that I would introduce this Bill, I have received information from one of the small firms fighting the ring, the Wico-Pacy firm of Bletchley, which produces sparking plugs at 3s. 6d. and sells them at the same price as Mr. Symes was attempting to sell his sparking plugs. I hope that through this Bill we may assist the Monopolies Commission and make it work a bit faster, and indeed that we shall relieve it and enable it to get on with many of the other monopolies into which it has to inquire.

I think that we should have the support of the President of the Board of Trade in this matter because the President of the Board of Trade was once a most passionate enemy of monopoly. He was also a youthful and brilliant spokesman in favour of individual rights. He seems to have suffered something of a relapse in recent years. Indeed, it might be said of the President of the Board of Trade that he has passed from the stage of rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever. Here, I think, is a chance for himto recover his reputation and to fulfil the election pledge of the Conservative Party, because we were promised at the last Election that they would take action about monopolies, and I think that we were promised at the begining of this Parliament that a Bill would be introduced.

Well, here is a small beginning, and I hope that the Government will give their support to this Measure through all its stages. In conclusion, I should like to quote one other sentence from Mr. Symes. Mr. Symes said that in his view these price-fixing arrangements are "a racket through and through." I ask the House of Commons to agree with him.

Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)

I think that the House will agree that the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) has this afternoon put forward his case with a great deal of good humour, and, if I may say so, with less venom than he usually shows, and we are very grateful to him for that. I want to address a few remarks to the House on this question which is,] think, of interest to all of us, in order to put the matter in what I consider to be the right perspective. I agree that there are issues in connection with the sale of sparking plugs which demand our attention. The general pattern of the trade is that about 40 million sparking plugs are made each year in this country and sold—20 million inside the country and roughly 20 million outside.

Mr. Speaker

Is the hon. Member opposing the introduction of the Bill?

Mr. Shepherd

Yes, Sir. Roughly 20 million are sold inside this country and 20 million outside. It is true that the difference between the manufacturing cost and the selling price is quite considerable. If I may, I will try to give the House what I think is the difference between those figures. Roughly speaking, the cost of production appears to be in the neighbourhood of 1s. 6d., and the selling price, as hon. Members know, varies from 3s. 6d. to 5s. 6d. It is not, of course, true to say that there is in this business a specific price ring. It is not true to say that. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] One can buy sparking plugs either at 3s. 6d., 5s. or 5s. 6d. Therefore, I feel that it cannot be truthfully said that there is a price ring, and I am assured there is no agreement among manufacturers.

In moving his Motion, the hon. Member for Devonport has referred to one firm, Messrs. Wico-Pacy, and I understand that the sales of their plugs in this country at a price of 3s. 6d. run into seven figures. Therefore, it is clear that the public has a choice of buying sparking plugs either at 3s. 6d., 5s. or 5s. 6d. The issue to which the hon. Member has directed our attention and the one which I wish to put specifically before the House is the method of compelling people to sell goods at a specific price. I agree with the hon. Gentleman wholeheartedly that it is not a desirable thing, and my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has taken action which indicates that he feels there is cause for concern on this issue.

The House will remember that last July my right hon. Friend referred the issue of exclusive selling and collective boycott to the Monopolies Commission under Section 15 of the Act, which was a very substantial step; and I tend to oppose the hon. Gentleman's Bill because I do not think it would be proper to single out this particular industry for this specific treatment. [Interruption.] If hon. Members will allow me, I will ex-explain why.

It is not true to say that the method of selling adopted by the sparking plug manufacturers is limited only to sparking plugs. A good deal of the criticism which the hon. Member has directed against the makers of sparking plugs could be directed against the makers of a number of accessories in the motor car field. Therefore, I do not think it would be a good thing to arrive at a state of affairs in this country where, by Act of Parliament, a practice was legal for one manufacturer and illegal for another.

I do not deny that this issue is a serious one and ought to be considered. There is a good deal of concern about it among hon. Members on this side of the House. On the other hand, I do not think that we ought to "jump the gun"of the Monopolies Commission. I do not think that my hon. Friends would wish to divide against this Motion. We shall see what sort of Bill the hon. Gentleman produces, because the House will note that he hardly said anything about the contents of the Bill. They are a complete mystery. In those circumstances, I do not think my hon. Friends would wish to divide the House.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Foot, Sir Richard Acland, Mr. Ian Mikardo, Miss Jennie Lee, Mr. William Griffiths, Mr. Delargy and Mr. Bing.


to reduce the retail price of sparking plugs," presented accordingly, and read the First time; to be read a Second time To-morrow and to be printed. [Bill 65.]
Mr. Wedgwood Benn(Bristol, South-East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) rose to speak on this Bill, you asked him whether he was opposing the Motion before the House. He said that he was. Subsequently in the course of his speech, he said that he did not intend to divide the House and that he and his hon. Friends wished to see what was in the Bill. When you collected the voices, I watched the hon. Member very carefully and he did not shout "No."

I submit that it is an abuse of the privileges of the House and the procedure under the Ten Minutes Rule for an hon. Member to make a speech while having no intention of opposing the Motion—which is only a Motion asking leave to introduce a Bill—and when an opportunity is given for hon. Members to express an opinion by voice, if not by vote, to decline to do so. I should be grateful for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

It is true that the Question before the House at the primary stage is that leave be given to bring in the Bill, and the Standing Orders say that the Speaker shall hear a short speech from the hon. Member who asks for leave to do so and a short speech from an hon.Member who opposes the Motion that leave be given. It is usual on these occasions, if an hon. Member speaks at all against the Motion, that he shall give his vote and voice against it. I can only presume that on this occasion, as the hon. Member for Cheadle developed his argument he departed from the intention with which he rose. But it is a matter to be observed in future, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) for raising it. If hon. Members do rise to oppose the introduction of a Bill under this Rule, they ought to carry it at least to the stage of indicating that they will vote against it.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

Further to that point of order. Since the question of the dignity of the House has been raised, may I ask whether it does not appear that the whole purpose of moving these Motions, both yesterday and today, is a deliberate manoeuvre? Yesterday the hon. Baronet the Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) made a remark that his Motion related to one of a series of Measures, and may not this be recognised as part of a deliberate manoeuvre to get over party propaganda—[Hon. Members: "No."]—even at the risk of injuring the dignity and prestige of this House?

Sir Richard Acland (Gravesend)

I have just been accused of initiating yesterday a deliberate manoeuvre with malicious intent. I entirely repudiate any such charge. Whenever commodities or services offered by public enterprise are increased in price, or offered for sale at a price which anyone thinks is too high, it is thought perfectly proper to bring up the matter for discussion on the Floor of this House and to make the kind of propaganda speeches which the Press pick out, and speeches which are, if one likes to say so, party propaganda against the nationalised industries. It is certainly equally proper, in my submission, as long as the thing is not carried to excess, to make use of opportunities afforded by this House in order to challenge prices charged by private enterprise.

Mr. Speaker

We cannot allow this to develop into an irregular debate. There is nothing more in the point of order. It is not for me to speculate in any way about the motives which induce hon. Members to introduce Bills under this Rule. I think the hon. Baronet put his finger on the spot when he said that this should not be carried too far. I think that is the view of the House. But as to motives and as to politics entering into the proceedings, I think it would be very unreasonable not to expect the occasional intrusion of politics into this assembly, and I think there is no more to be said on the matter. The dignity of the House is in the hands of all Members of the House, and it is for them so to use its rules that that dignity remains intact and, if possible, enhanced.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

There is a further point on which I think we should have an answer, Mr. Speaker. I understand that there is a Ruling—certainly a long-standing practice—that it is wrong for hon. Members in making speeches to make imputations against other hon. Members. Is it not infinitely more so when the Motion has been moved and accepted by the House that such imputations should be made against the mover and those who have supported him?

Mr. Speaker

The general rule is not to impute to an hon. Member any un-avowed motive. I think that when the motive is a political one, the House will take it in a spirit of give and take. Every hon. Member, after all, has certain avowed political motives in being here.