HC Deb 23 January 1962 vol 652 cc38-40
Mr. Jay (by Private Notice)

asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he will set up a public inquiry into the effects on the public interest of the proposed merger between Imperial Chemical Industries and Courtaulds.

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. F. J. Erroll)

I fully recognise the interest of the House in this important matter. The House will realise, however, that the issues involved are complex. I am not in a position to make a statement today, but hope to be able to do so very shortly.

Mr. Jay

Will the President of the Board of Trade agree that he cannot leave the matter like that very long, as this is the largest and most important merger ever proposed in British industry and has aroused a great deal of opposition within the industry and anxiety on both sides of the House? Can he tell us how soon he will make his statement and whether it will contain definite proposals by the Government?

Mr. Erroll

I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House generally that I fully appreciate the importance of the issues and also their complexity. I hope to be able to make a statement on Thursday, but if this is not possible I shall try to do so as soon as possible next week. I am sure that hon. Members would not wish me to anticipate my statement in any way.

Sir C. Osborne

Before my right hon. Friend makes his statement, may I ask him to look at the position from the point of view of exporters? In view of the fact that Courtaulds asked I.C.I. to co-operate in the production of a new synthetic fibre, which ultimately became Courtelle, which is the most rapidly increasing man-made fibre in the industry, that the supply of raw materials for making this fibre has been coming previously from I.C.I. and that Courtaulds now can buy it at 50 per cent. of the price that I.C.I. is charging, and since control of the raw material is such an important factor in the price of the yarn and this will affect the exporter, will my right hon. Friend consider the matter from that point of view?

Mr. Erroll

I can assure my hon. Friend that this is one of the matters of which we must take account in considering the matter.

Mrs. White

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the workers in the industry, of whom there are some thousands in my constituency, would very warmly welcome an impartial, independent inquiry into the facts put before both sides, and that we have reason to think that Courtaulds have no objection to such an inquiry?

Mr. Erroll

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for informing me of the interest among the workers in her constituency.

Mr. Gaitskell

Did not the President of the Board of Trade tell us shortly before the Christmas Recess that he had no powers to intervene in this matter? Are we to take it from his remarks this afternoon that he has had second thoughts on that point, and are we to conclude that the Government are now seriously considering the appointment of a committee of inquiry as requested by my right hon. Friend?

Mr. Erroll

No, I am not going to be drawn by the right hon. Gentleman. I would ask him to await my statement.

Sir A. V. Harvey

In considering this matter will my right hon. Friend take careful consideration of the letter in The Times today, representing the views of the users of these fibres? Would he further understand that many of us believe in competition?

Mr. Erroll

I should like to reassure my hon. Friend that I have read the letter in The Times this morning very carefully.

Mr. Albu

Will the President of the Board of Trade bear in mind that it is not a question whether this merger should or should not take place? It is by no means the first and will probably not be the last. The question at issue is whether the public should or should not understand the conditions under which it takes place and the economic arguments for and against it, so that the public can judge, because in the end it is for the public, as represented through their Members of Parliament, to decide whether a merger of this sort should take place. As this is likely to be the growing trend in these matters, they must be absolutely open and above board. When the President of the Board of Trade gives his final consideration to it, will he bear these points in mind?

Mr. Erroll

I shall certainly note what the hon. Member has said and see how far it can be covered in my statement.

Mr. Thorpe

As a result of the informal discussions which the President of the Board of Trade has had with the leaders of these two companies, can he say with confidence that nothing irrevocable will have occurred by Thursday, when he is to make his statement? Can he also say whether or not he has received any assurances that nothing irrevocable will happen till such time as the House has considered the matter?

Mr. Erroll

I can say that nothing irrevocable, as matters stand at present, will have taken place by next Thursday, because if the matter takes the normal course it will be for I.C.I. to circulate its offer to Courtaulds' shareholders. The preparation of the documents will necessarily take some time. It is, I gather, a matter of some three weeks rather than a few days. Therefore, I would not expect anything irrevocable to take place by next Thursday.

Mr. S. Silverman

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind before he makes his statement, whether on Thursday or early next week, that there are a great many Members of this House who believe that where monopolies turn out in the end to be either inevitable or desirable they should be publicly owned and publicly controlled? Will he take this into account in whatever statement he makes?

Mr. Erroll

I would merely say that I note what the hon. Member says.

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