HC Deb 09 August 1966 vol 733 cc1663-5

5.30 a.m.

Mr. Biffen

I beg to move Amendment 54, in page 40, to leave out lines 7 to 29.

Mr. Speaker

I think it would be convenient to the House if Amendment No. 55, in line 30, leave out paragraph 10, and No. 56, in page 41, line 4, leave out from "prices" to end of line 10, were discussed at the same time.

Mr. Biffen

Yes, Mr. Speaker. The purpose of the Amendment is to delete the criteria governing the behaviour of prices contained in the Schedule, and the purpose of Amendment No. 56 is to delete the actual figures taken from the National Plan which have also guided the Prices and Incomes Board in its past examinations of those incomes or prices which have been referred to it. The case for moving the Amendment is that the criteria are almost meaningless. That has been acknowledged by the Government, who have disowned the contents of the Schedule, although they have promised at some unspecified date that we shall get another edition. This debate will give the Government a chance to share with us at least some inkling of their thinking.

We should like to know whether they will suggest tighter criteria for price increases as they promised there would be tighter criteria for income increases. As far as we can judge from the criteria set out in the Schedule originally they amounted to not much more than a halfhearted attempt to suspend the laws of supply and demand. We should like to see the policy designed to reinforce the workings of the market economy, to support the primacy of consumer choice, and also to see the Government so arrange their business that industry and commerce can obtain the best rewards from identifying and specifying home and overseas consumer requirements. None of those considerations would appear to be implicit in the criteria laid down in the Schedule.

Should the Government concur with our judgment they now have a chance to make it clear that, after all, the consumer and not the gentlemen in Whitehall may have some voice in the matter. This view is well founded, in view of the nature of some reports coming from the Prices and Incomes Board—reports which have tut-tutted in unison with the First Secretary about the varieties of beer available, and which have expressed concern about plastic flowers offered with detergents and about varieties of bread. These are all pettifogging conclusions of the Prices and Incomes Board. If the Board had a better and more robust set of criteria, which was determined to place the consumer at the very centre of our thinking, we should have a rather more satisfactory answer.

The other point concerns the figure of 3 per cent. and 3½ per cent. Here is the opportunity for generous action, even at 5.34 a.m., on the part of the First Secretary. He could at least let us have some idea of his thoughts about the kind of figure which will ultimately replace the present one. It is no use his thinking that he can go off and have communion with Mr. Catherwood, of N.E.D.C., and then come along at the end and tell Parliament, "This is what we have decided. Here it is. The tablet has been tossed down from the mountain, and you can take it or leave it." The initiation of the policy and of the new philosophy which will govern the Schedule must be inspired by the Government. They must accept final responsibility. They should start here and now with a brief outline statement, and not give it to us after it has been kicked around N.E.D.C. the C.B.I. and the T.U.C. Parliament still has some aspiration to share in this process, and the First Secretary can delight us all, and we can end in a very happy spirit, if he accepts my invitation.

Mr. William Rodgers

We end, as we began very many hours ago, by discussing Schedule 2 and the question raised very persistently by the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) who on many occasions has returned to the problem of price criteria and has cast doubt on whether it was right to include Schedule 2 in the Bill and particularly on whether the norm mentioned therein remains realistic. Schedule 2 remains that part of the White Paper of a year or more ago discussed very fully with both sides of industry and endorsed by the N.E.D.C.

On the final point which the hon. Member made about the norm, I draw his attention to the final sentence in paragraph 11 on page 41 of the White Paper in which we say that the norm would be subject to re-examination by the Government in the light of reviews conducted from time to time by the N.E.D.C. The answer to the question about what the norm may be at any time is that we shall discuss it with the C.B.I. and the T.U.C. We shall reflect on it in the light of what the N.E.D.C. can tell us and determine whatever norm may be realistic. We have said that there must be a standstill and that on incomes there will be a nil norm for the second half of the period. Beyond that it would be wrong for us to go.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, we return to Clause 4(2) under which the Secretary of State has power to vary the criteria; and in adding to or varying the criteria he is dealing not only with incomes but with prices. The White Paper is the point of reference for the next 12 months. There will be a standstill for six months and a period of severe restraint to follow. Beyond that we cannot see.

We have had a very good discussion of this excellent Bill, and I am sure that it goes from this House a better Bill than it was when it came and a Bill which will win very widespread approval from the public as a major step in a determined effort by the Government to deal with the long-standing problems of the economy and to have a successful period of planning in a free society.

Amendment negatived.

Bill to be read the Third time this day.