HC Deb 23 April 1964 vol 693 cc1662-9

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Graham Page

May I ask my right hon. Friend what is likely to be exempt by the Clause, which reads: Nothing it this Act shall apply to any agreement which is expressly authorised by any enactment, or by any scheme, order or other instrument made under any enactment, or to anything done pursuant to any such agreement, scheme, order or instrument. What are the agreements likely to come within the Clause? I have a grave suspicion that it gives unfair advantage to the nationalised industries since they are operating under enactments all the time. Would this agreement, authorised by Statute, apply, for example, to electrical Foods supplied by the Electricity Loard or Post Office telephones, whether black, white or pale pink, or to coal? I know that the Clause comes wholly from the Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1956, but here we are dealing with retail goods, and I suppose that under the schemes there might be exempt milk, Lion eggs, potatoes and white fish. One can think of various schemes under which the goods might be exempt by virtue of the Clause. May we know what the Clause is intended to cover?

Mr. Heath

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) is quite right. It is based on the 1956 Act. It is not intended to apply to the nationalised industries, and I think that in the case which he mentioned it would in any case be a direct supply by the Board which is manufacturing and then selling. But it would deal with statutory bodies, for example statutory marketing schemes. I hope that that answers his question.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Jay

Will it apply to sales of copies of this Bill by the Stationery Office?

Mr. Heath

The products of the Stationery Office are not subject to r.p.m. If anybody buys copies of the Bill and likes to sell them at half price, nobody could stop that from happening.

Mr. H. Lever

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) has done a service in emphasising the importance of this little Clause, particularly since it exposes the hypocrisy of the Government in bringing in the Bill. All the Clause does is to produce an exempted area whereby a practice which is condemned and disallowed by the rest of the Measure, on pain of ruining a man's business, may continue in other areas where the Government are concerned. This shows that what is regarded as dishonest exploitation of the public for the purposes of demagogy before the election, in the rest of the Bill is regarded as permissible, wholesome and orderly marketing and a desirable practice when it is covered by Statute. The Government may thus sell or arrange to sell goods under conditions in which another manufacturer or distributor may find himself in trouble. The Government will do things although, in precisely similar conditions, private people will find that they are doing something illegal and will be ruined.

Why should some things be bad for the rest of industry and automatically right in other cases which are covered by enactments? The interesting point about this is that we are not talking about future enactments—legislation passed by an enlightened Government who have seen the light and know how necessary it is not to disrupt the marketing arrangements which have been in force and which are vital to some trades—but about enactments of years past. We are talking about enactments when schemes and arrangements covering price, distribution and marketing were brought in by this and previous Governments, long before they had seen the light; long before they had become nineteenth century free traders.

Why should we keep these schemes in force? Should we not—in the light of the new scientific and competitive approach which has been brought about by the Prime Minister and his colleagues, with their vast experience of industry, distribution and manufacture—be told which schemes are desirable and which are not?

If the Clause is added to the Bill in its present form we will be giving a blanket authorisation to all schemes enacted at any time and concerned with price fixing or anything else. Has the Secretary of State examined all the schemes which will be exempted from the operation of the Bill by the Clause? Can he conscientiously tell the Committee that he considers that they should all be exempted? We are entitled to know, before exempting a whole batch of distribution and pricing schemes from the operation of the Measure, more than we have so far heard about them. Is he certain that these schemes should remain as a result of the splendid provisons he is introducing to disrupt the marketing arrangements of everyone else? How strange it would be if it proved that there were great numbers of these schemes and that not one was against the public interest. It seems extraordinary that, the Minister having proceeded throughout on the presumption that all price-fixing schemes are harmful to the public interest, every single scheme he is now exempting should turn out to be in the public interest. I do not expect the Secretary of State to list them all, but can he tell me of the major areas where the exemptions will apply and where the Bill will cease to apply, with all its benevolent effects? Can we know where the Government propose that the so-called "rat race" shall continue in full vigour? I do not expect a retail catalogue, but we are entitled to know the major schemes that will be affected, and whether the Minister is aware of them and approves them.

Mr. Wilfred Proudfoot (Cleveland)

After listening to the hon. Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. H. Lever) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), I am puzzled to know why these items cannot be dealt with by the normal processes of the Bill. The gateways should be good enough for these commodities.

I have a little information about the three items mentioned. The Stationery Office gives the most miserable margin of profit of any book publishers. I am a newsagent, and I know that the wholesalers will scarcely handle Stationery Office publications because of that miserable margin. Again, there is a completely free market in eggs which, at this time of year, are very often used for price cutting. I would hate to see the price of eggs stabilised by this Clause.

The argument advanced in favour of the Bill is that we must have modernisation in distribution, but our milk trade is far behind that of other countries, where one can get things known as "half-and-half." I have sold skim milk at twice the price of ordinary milk to people wanting to slim. I am convinced that the Milk Marketing Board, because of this type of price control, would prove the point of the whole Bill; the fact that there is a resale price has held back the diversification of milk products. I ask my right hon. Friend to take this Clause back and see whether it can be dropped before Third Reading, and so allow commodities to go through the normal gateway.

Mr. Heath

On my hon. Friend's last point, the products he mentioned are not subject to resale price maintenance, in any case, so they are not affected by this Clause. The reason why these schemes are excluded is that Parliament has laid down and approved their nature, and if a certain scheme is to be changed it should be changed by Parliament in an enactment or order concerned with that scheme. That is the way in which our procedure works—either in the presence or the absence of the hon. Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. H. Lever)—and I suggest that we adhere to that procedure. That is why we have this arrangement.

I should have thought that, remembering the views the hon. Member for Cheetham expressed on the first day of this Committee stage—and now on its last day—he would have welcomed the exclusion of these schemes, because he is strongly—indeed, bitterly—opposed to the whole policy of the Bill, and this should be an indication of the flexibility for which has been asking. If a return to what he hon. Member likes to describe as my "vitriolic manner" would be such a shock as to make him leave our proceedings, I will, of course, at once see what I can do.

Mr. H. Lever

At the risk of bringing that upon myself, I must place it on record that me Minister is neither able nor willing say what schemes are mainly affected. Are we merely dealing with a minor matter, and allowing to be dropped some scheme approved somewhere in 1880, or are we excluding vast areas of the economy of the country? The right hon. Gentleman is far too intelligent really to believe his own argument. He knows why I am protesting, not at the exemption but at the Bill itself, and the point I am seeking to make is quite a logical one and a reasonable one by an opponent of the Bill.

I am saying that it is illogical and unjust for a Government that profess that price-fixing and price maintenance schemes are unfair to the public, and ought if they are to continue to be justified by an independent tribunal to exempt en masse a whole group of schemes which have precisely this objective and which other people have to justify before an impartial tribunal.

Surely Conservatives would say that what is good enough for private enterprise groups is good enough for all the other groups, public owned or private. I cannot understand why people who are exempted in this way should not be at least indicated to us. The point made by the Secretary of State is quite hopeless in his own defence. He says that these are different from the schemes of price fixing which private manufacturers have made. These are schemes which bear the sacred imprimatur of the Legislature self. But the right hon. Gentleman does not answer the point which I made before, that the Legislature which gave that imprimatur was a different one from the one at present passing this obnoxious Bill, obnoxious at least to me.

The Legislature hitherto has allowed price-fixing schemes to go on and has not disapproved of them. It is that Legisla- ture which has authorised these schemes. In fact, so far the Legislature has not only allowed price fixing but has as recently as the previous Act on the subject actually added to the powers of the price-fixing manufacturer by enabling him to sue a man who never contracted with him, a procedure of which even I am not in support.

Ought not the House of Commons, which has now seen the light and which proposes to pass this Bill and destroy all these schemes which have been enforceable hitherto by virtue of legislative action by the House and which wants to make people justify them, to examine the previous Acts which had not this enlightened and modern view and which were passed by a House of Commons which had not such an enlightened and experienced Prime Minister? It was only when this modern and experienced young public man came into the House with his vast knowledge of the industrial, economic and trading world on which our lives and future and export trade depend and who could not bear the antiquated state into which we had got ourselves in the legislation on the subject that we had to have this Bill.

Now that we have come to the new and modern view, why cannot we examine these antiquated schemes under which the aircraft industry and the Milk Marketing Board operate? I confess that I do not know, and I suspect that other hon. Members do not know, what schemes are covered by provisions of the Bill. In all earnestness and seriousness I think that the Minister should not take advantage of the fact that I did not intervene in the last two days of the debate. I do not think that this entitles the right hon. Gentleman to ride off of the question and to treat a perfectly reasonable argument as if it were a late night frivolity.

I am pointing out that the Minister says that the Bill compels people who have price maintenance schemes to go before an impartial tribunal and to show that they are not against the public interest if they propose to enforce them. This Clause says that any such schemes as were at any time in the past authorised by Parliament from 1880 onwards, or even before—from Domesday on- wards—shall remain in force without any examination whatsoever.

11.30 p.m.

I am not against this in principle but I ask, and the Committee has a duty to ensure that it knows, whether, first, the Minister has examined the schemes to make sure, if we are not to have judicial process applied to them, whether or not they are against the public interest. Can the right hon. Gentleman honestly put his hand on his heart and tell us now that he has examined all the schemes affected or that he even knows how many there are? Can he say that he has come to an impartial conclusion and has decided that all, without exception, are not against the public interest?

Unless the Committee is more erudite than I am, it does not even know how many schemes are affected. I invite the Minister even now to tell us how many are affected and what are the major areas involved. If there is but one of the schemes that is not in the public interest, let it be abolished if we are to move into this new enlightened age. Why should it have this blanket benefit?

What possible harm could it do if all the schemes had to pass through the gateways and come before the tribunal? Let us suppose that the tribunal turns down one of these schemes and says that it is against the public interest, or that it even says that it is not. How sure would we be then? So far we have not had the right hon. Gentleman's assurance that he has examined them and has come to the conclusion that they are in the public interest.

The assumption that these schemes are in some way privileged because Parliament has approved them simply will not do, because the Parliament is the same Parliament that approved restrictive practices in the past. Equally we are not entitled to take for granted that a Parliament which has approved restrictive practices in the past will approve this type of legislation in the present. I do not ask the right hon. Gentleman to detail all, but I want him to say which are the main schemes that will be exempted by reason of the Clause. If he does not tell us, I shall know that he is not being discourteous. I shall simply not believe that he knows, and if he does not tell us I shall assert that he has passed a blanket exemption and does not himself know what schemes are being exempted by reason of the Bill.

Mr. Heath

Perhaps I can clear up the difficulty on which the hon. Member has worked himself up into a passion. I said that this was a proposal based on the 1956 Act and it was not intended to apply to nationalised industries but was intended to be a saving on anything done under the authority of an enactment and which is only for Parliament to decide on and alter. It is not for me to do it in the Bill. If there are any requirements and the hon. Member wants me carefully to examine anything I am perfectly prepared to do so. He no doubt believes from what he said about my reputation that I would be prepared to do my utmost to ensure that these schemes comply. But I have a feeling that my colleagues behind me would prefer that I do it in the next Parliament rather than in this. I am advised that as far as the present circumstances are concerned there are no schemes at the moment which would be covered by this Clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.