HC Deb 27 March 1956 vol 550 cc1969-72
47. Mr. Nabarro

asked the Prime Minister, following his discussions with employers' representatives, trade unions' representatives and heads of nationalised boards, whether he will make a statement of arrangements concluded for price stabilisation; and what assurances have been given by the State coal, electrical, gas and transport undertakings that such basic services as they provide to British industry will be at prices fixed at present levels at least for the rest of 1956.

The Prime Minister

It was not within the scope of these discussions to make formal arrangements or to seek formal assurances such as my hon. Friend suggests. The object has been to review our national economy and to emphasise the need to keep down prices. As regards the nationalised industries in particular there was general agreement—and I think this is a quotation from what we agreed—that because of the effect on the whole of industry it was of the utmost importance for the national economic well-being that increases in their wages and other costs should, as far as possible, be absorbed by increased productivity and economy.

Mr. Nabarro

Has my right hon. Friend observed that since his meeting with the heads of the nationalised industries, the Transport Commission has announced a substantial increase in freight rates, followed consequentially by an increase in coal prices, and is he aware that what the majority of us are greatly concerned about is the vicious spiral between transport and coal and the fact that each time the price of one goes up the price of the other goes up ad infinitum and thereby inflates beyond all control the prices charged by private enterprise?

The Prime Minister

I think that I am as conscious as is my hon. Friend of the great complexity of these matters. We have tried to treat them in these discussions—and we must go on trying to treat them—as a national problem to be met by the nation as a whole and by everybody trying to do his part in meeting them. I really am not prepared to single out this or that industry for indictment. When we meet for our private talks we say frankly to each other what we think about these matters, but I think that we must try to keep a national view of the problem.

Mr. Gaitskell

While welcoming the tone of the Prime Minister's reply to his hon. Friend, may I ask him whether, in view of the fact that the Government have intervened to prevent an increase in fares at the cost of the Transport Commission continuing to make a loss, it is the intention of the Government, since the Coal Board is also making a loss, to intervene to prevent a rise in coal prices, and whether, if that is the case, he will ask the Chancellor to reverse his decision on the subsidies on bread and milk?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to follow him in detail in reply to his question. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport gave his reasons for the decision to which we came, and I do not think that I can go beyond that at present.

Mr. Lee

Is the Prime Minister aware that although we welcome conversations which can help in stabilising the economy, such discussions can never be a substitute for discussions in the House? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that we have not had, either in the recent industrial debate or at any time, any concrete statement from the Government as to what is happening in these discussions so that the House of Commons might be made aware of the developments?

The Prime Minister

I certainly never thought for a moment that these talks could be any substitution for discussion in this House, which is sovereign in these matters, and which has every right to examine them at any time. At the same time, I think it is desirable, so far as it can be done, that we should try, in these private exchanges, to meet problems of which we are all conscious.

Mr. H. Wilson

Are we to take it from the various announcements made within the last week or two, and from the White Paper published by the Government, that the Government have in mind to enter into a period, for six months or so, of a general price freeze and an appeal for restraint in wages? If that is in the right hon. Gentleman's mind, will he make it clear to some of his right hon. Friends that such a price freeze would be absolutely impossible unless the Government were prepared to reintroduce price control?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman will realise, I am sure, that he has gone a very long way from the Question on the Order Paper. If he wants an answer, perhaps he will put down a Question.

Mr. Osborne

Does not my right hon. Friend think that more could be done through the Central Office of Information to make known the serious fact to the people on the floor of the House—[Laughter]—I mean the floor of the factories and also in the boardrooms that unless something is done we shall be faced with a situation such as this generation has never been faced with before?

The Prime Minister

I am inclined to agree with my hon. Friend that in these matters the Floor of the House and the floor of the factory are about of equal importance.

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