HC Deb 09 August 1966 vol 733 cc1587-9

1.15 a.m.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing)

I beg to move Amendment No. 24, in page 20, line 36, after "State" to insert: shall ensure that any agreements made on prices following a recommendation in a Report of the Board, or action taken by the Secretary of State, are registered with the Registrar of Restrictive Trade Practices who shall decide whether or not to refer them to the Restrictive Trade Practices Court". I had the pleasure of running a quarter-mile race immediately after the race in which Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile. I have much the same feeling now as I had then. Moreover, I shall try to do what I did then, namely, to get the thing over as rapidly as possible.

However, this is a very important Amendment, because it is concerned with the relationship between the Prices and Incomes Board and the Restrictive Trade Practices Court. A great deal of confusion has arisen because the Government appear, as the Bill stands, to be following two conflicting policies, and it is by no means clear whether, on a particular issue, the Board would have the authority effectively to override a matter which the Restrictive Trade Practices Court would otherwise regard as contrary to the public interest.

We raised this matter in Committee, and we received a reasonably favourable reply from the Government. It is for this reason that we tabled the Amendment, which is designed to ensure that any arrangement made as a result of a recommendation by the Board should be registered with the Registrar of Restrictive Trade Practices. This does not mean that he would necessarily refer it to the court for consideration, but it ensures that if an arrangement is made as a result of the Government's prices and incomes policy the public interest will be considered. Might such an arrangement lead to a situation which, in terms of the Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1956 was deemed to be against the public interest?

That Act was debated at great length, and a great deal of time was spent on the criteria which the court should take into account in deciding whether or not a particular restrictive practice fell within some very closely defined gateways. It would be very inadvisable if the House decided on this Measure, which has had nowhere near the same detailed consideration, to eliminate from the province of the Restrictive Practices Court those procedures which are brought about by recommendation of the Board.

We therefore move this Amendment, and I hope that the Government will accept it, given that it provides only for reference of a matter to the Registrar, who would then have discretion as to whether or not it should properly be considered by the Restrictive Trade Practices Court.

Mr. William Rodgers

The hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) said that when this question was raised in Committee he received a reasonably favourable reply from the Government. Therefore, I do not know why he has sought to tempt providence by raising it again this evening. If he was satisfied, I would have hoped that he would accept the assurance he was then given that the Clause which he now seeks to amend is necessary if the recommendations of the National Board for Prices and Incomes are to be faithfully carried out.

The purpose of Clause 24 is to ensure that the collective adoption by traders of the price recommendations of the Board does not give rise to any obligations to register under the Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1956, or to obtain the consent of the Restrictive Practices Court. This is a very important point, because the purposes of a recommendation by the Board would be largely frustrated if it were not possible for the parties affected collectively to decide to respond to the injunction of the Board and to hold or reduce their prices accordingly.

Without the Clause, they would find themselves in a very difficult position under the 1956 Act if they responded to the requirements of the Board and attempted, in the public interest, to hold down prices. It is true that when the 1956 Act was devised its purpose was to serve the public interest, but at that time I do not think that anybody could foresee the steps which we are now taking and the day when firms and associations would voluntarily be prepared to agree to hold down prices in response to the recommendations of a body set up by the Government, with the agreement of both sides of industry.

In other words, in 1966 we are dealing with a situation which was not foreseen 10 years ago and we must recognise that without Clause 24 there would be a conflict of public interest. In these circumstances we should find that much of what we are trying to do on the prices side, with the general approval of the House, would be frustrated.

Mr. Higgins

The dilemma which the hon. Gentleman poses would arise only if two Government bodies were to adopt two quite different interpretations of what the public interest was. The Amendment provides merely that an agreement should be registered. Obviously, it would be referred only if there seemed to be some inconsistency. In the circumstances, is it not right that such inconsistency should be resolved by the Restrictive Practices Court?

Mr. Rodgers

The Amendment goes further than that. Not only does it restore the position to what it would be if there were no Clause 24 but it puts an obligation on Ministers to ensure that a price recommendation is registered. In the other situation, this is not so. If the Amendment were accepted we would go a stage further than the status quo, so to speak, requiring the parties concerned in a collective agreement adopting a recommendation of the Board to register that agreement and, in addition, putting an obligation on two Ministers to ensure that this is done.

I am happy to give again the assurance that, of course, we shall do nothing which is not within the spirit of the 1956 Act. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept the undertaking which I gave in Committee, and will not press the Amendment to a Division.

Amendment negatived.