HC Deb 04 February 1965 vol 705 cc1274-6
Q3. Mr. A. Royle

asked the Prime Minister if he will set up a Royal Commission to inquire into the law affecting public public auctions, and to institute an inquiry into the methods of conducting Government surplus sales.

Q4. Mr. Ridley

asked the Prime Minister if he will recommend the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into the law and practice relating to public auctions.

Q9. Mr. Chichester-Clark

asked the Prime Minister whether he will recommend a Royal Commission to inquire into the knock-out and other practices arising from public auctions.

Q10. Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of recent disclosures, he will recommend the appointment of a Royal Commission to review the law and practice relating to auctions and valuation in this country.

Q21. Mr. Abse

asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the damage caused by knock-out and other practices to the reputation of Great Britain as an international art centre, he will advise the appointment of a Royal Commission to review the law relating to public auctions.

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and the other Ministers concerned are considering whether practices at auction sales can be improved by voluntary regulation and also whether further legislation is necessary and practicable. There have recently been exploratory talks on both matters with the British Antique Dealers Association and the Chartered Institute of Auctioneers and Estate Agents. There is also the important question of the conduct of auctions of Government surplus stores. When these discussions are complete we shall consider whether there is a case for an independent inquiry.

Mr. Royle

Will the Prime Minister, when that time comes, not dismiss the possibility of setting up a Royal Commission to examine this matter in great detail? Public opinion has been greatly shocked by the exposure this morning of the scandalous developments which have been taking place in Government surplus sales which have affected and, indeed, swindled the general taxpayer?

The Prime Minister

I certainly share the hon. Member's concern about this matter. When the discussions are complete, we shall consider whether there should be an independent inquiry—not necessarily a Royal Commission; it might be better to proceed by departmental inquiry as long as we are satisfied that the matter can be thoroughly inquired into. In common, however, with all other hon. Members who have served upon the Public Accounts Committee at one time or another, I certainly share the deep concern about the extent to which the taxpayer is being fleeced by some of these rings at auctions of Government surplus property.

Mr. Ridley

Would not the Prime Minister agree that the reasons why this takes place in the book trade and in the antique world, as well as in the Government surplus world, are the same and that the problem relates to defects in our method of auctioneering and valuation? I welcome what the Prime Minister has said, but will he, therefore, make sure that he follows this one until he gets the right answer?

The Prime Minister

Yes; I think that the motive is the same. A group of people want to make more money than they are entitled to do by getting together and depressing the price. The reason is exactly the same in all three. This is why it is important to have the discussions to which I have referred. But in the very special case of disposals of Government property, where the taxpayer is paying when this sort of thing happens, there is mounting evidence that our traditional acceptance of competitive tender, which we always have or try to have in these cases, is no longer competitive.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

While welcoming what the Prime Minister has said, may I ask him to ask his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to look in particular at the case of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, where some time ago a voluntary regulation was employed? It would be satisfactory to know whether this has worked out in practice.

The Prime Minister

I think that the House is aware that there was very great concern just before Christmas at certain events in the book trade and, as I have mentioned, my right hon. Friend is having discussions particularly with the interests responsible.

Mr. Abse

May I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for the rigorous action which clearly has been taken in these matters? May I particularly draw his attention to the fact that, apart from the question of the loss to the taxpayer on Government surplus property, there is a serious danger, which cannot be underestimated, to the contribution which sales of art objects and antiques can make to the economy of the country, in so far as it is appalling that foreigners who usually use London as the medium of selling these goods are now beginning to be afraid that they will be cheated in the way they undoubtedly have been in the past?

The Prime Minister

I would not take this too far. It is, of course, a fact that our auction system has been widely respected by people all over the world who want to sell. It is of paramount importance that the good name which we have had in the past in this respect should not be in any sense smudged by certain recent things which need to be inquired into.