HC Deb 06 February 1956 vol 548 cc1331-4
29. Mr. E. Johnson

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power if he will give a general direction to the National Coal Board, the British Electricity Authority, and the Gas Council not to increase their charges for the next six months.

36. Sir J. Hutchison

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power if he will give general directions to those nationalised industries for which he is responsible, instructing them to undertake not to raise their prices for a fixed period, in order to arrest the rise in prices and to provide a background for restraint in wage claims.

39. Mr. Fisher

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power if he will give a general direction to the nationalised fuel and power industries to stabilise both wages to their employees and prices to the public for a definite period, in an effort to correct the present inflationary wage-price spiral.

47. Mr. Nabarro

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power whether he is aware of the proposal of the South of Scotland Electricity Board in regard to the pegging of prices for electricity, thus following the lead of the cement industry; and, in view of this, whether he will now reconsider his earlier decision and issue a general direction to all nationalised industries under his control to follow the example of this board and peg their prices until the end of the year 1956.

49. Sir F. Medlicott

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power if, in view of the example set by certain privately-owned companies and by the South of Scotland Electricity Board in stabilising their charges to domestic, commercial and industrial consumers for the present year, he will issue a general direction to the National Coal Board and to the electricity and gas boards not to increase their charges and prices during the same period.

Mr. Aubrey Jones

No, Sir. While I accept the desirability of a restraint in prices, I consider it would be quite wrong for me to enforce a general rule on the industries for which I am responsible. Regard must be paid in each case to individual circumstances, and in particular to the present state of finances in relation to the statutory requirement to make ends meet.

Mr. Johnson

While I recognise the special difficulties in the case of the coal industry, why should not gas and electricity, even without the Minister's direction, follow the excellent example set by the cement industry and other private enterprise industries?

Mr. Jones

I see no reason why, because some people do something voluntarily, I should compel others to do the same.

Sir J. Hutchison

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the South of Scotland Electricity Board has in fact done this? Is this with his approval? If that Board is able to do it, why should not other electricity boards be able to do the same thing? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Prime Minister has given a general blessing to this, and that we cannot expect private industry to do this if nationalised industry does not set a lead?

Mr. Jones

The South of Scotland Electricity Board comes not under me but under the Secretary of State for Scotland. It is open to any area electricity board or any gas board to do what the South of Scotland Electricity Board has done, but the Question asked me for compulsion, and compulsion is quite a different thing.

Mr. Shinwell

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that within the provisions of the Act he has got no power to enforce compulsion in respect of prices on any of the nationalised boards under his jurisdiction?

Mr. Jones

I agree entirely. My power to give directions on prices is open to great legal doubt.

Mr. Fisher

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that it is becoming absolutely essential to get price stabilisation if we are to restrain inflation? Is it too much to ask my right hon. Friend to suggest to the nationalised industries that they should play their part?

Mr. Jones

I would not disagree with a policy of price stabilisation, but the ability of an industry or a firm to stabilise its prices depends very largely on the state of its reserves, and generally the reserves of nationalised undertakings are more exiguous than those of private undertakings.

Mr. Nabarro

Is it not a fact that the reserves of the industry with which many of us are concerned, namely, the electricity industry, are more than adequate for all foreseeable purposes? As it is a nationalised electricity board which has taken the lead in this matter, after of course a private enterprise industry—cement—set the example, in saying that it will stabilise prices, surely it is not unreasonable that we should ask that the English boards should be requested to follow suit?

Mr. Jones

I am afraid that I do not agree that the reserves of the electricity Boards are fully adequate for their development purposes.

Sir F. Medlicott

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the general battle against inflation everyone is retreating all along the line, and that there would be the greatest psychological value if we could dig in somewhere and hold at least some of the positions?

Mr. Speaker

This is exactly the same question over and over again.

Mr. Palmer

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Herbert Committee has said that the electricity industry has hardly increased its prices to domestic consumers since 1938, that electricity prices in this country are, if anything, too low, and would it not be excellent if private industry followed the example of this nationalised industry?