HC Deb 07 November 1972 vol 845 cc814-22
Q2. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Prime Minister if he is satisfied with the progress of his Government's policies to combat inflation; and if he will make a statement.

Q3. Mr. Meacher

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the outcome of the Downing. Street talks with the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry.

Q4. Mr. Arthur Lewis

asked the Prime Minister whether he will make a statement on his discussions held on Monday, 30th October, with representatives of the Confederation of British Industry, Trades Union Congress and the National Economic Development Council; what proposals he intends to make for a voluntary or compulsory wages, prices and profits freeze; and whether in such an arrangement he will ensure that all the lower paid workers' wages are raised to the present national average wage.

Q5. Mr. Duffy

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his recent talks with the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry on prices and incomes policies.

Q6. Mr. Wyn Roberts

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the progress achieved in his talks with the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry to date.

Q7. Mr. Redmond

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the most recent meeting with the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress.

Q8. Mr. Adley

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement following his latest meeting with the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry.

Q10. Dr. Vaughan

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his meeting with the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry on 26th October.

Q11. Sir Gilbert Longden

asked the Prime Minister what was the outcome of his most recent talks with the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress; and if he will make a statement.

Q14. Mr. Skinner

asked the Prime Minister what further plans he has to meet the representatives of the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British industry to discuss the economy; and if he will make a statement.

Q15. Mr. John D. Grant

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his most recent talks with the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry concerning inflation.

Q16. Mr. Norman Lamont

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his talks with the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress.

The Prime Minister

I would refer to the statement which I made to the House yesterday.—[Vol. 845, c. 622–37.]

Mr. Hamilton

May I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the statement in the Evening News today? Mums' Army In Action. Angry shoppers swamp Ministry watchdogs with protests over the Freeze cheats. Can he give the House any information as to the number of calls to the army of snoopers now in the Ministry looking at the price increases which have been imposed in the last two or three days, and particularly in the last 24 hours? Will he make it clear to those who have imposed these increases that when legislation is passed they will have to justify them or remove them, or else they will be fined, according to the terms of the draft legislation?

The Prime Minister

On the last part of the question, that is made clear in the White Paper and the Bill published yesterday. When the Bill is passed it will become effective from yesterday. So that is clear to everybody. If the hon. Gentleman wants to know the number of calls, I have no doubt that the departmental Ministers responsible will be able to tell him if he puts down a Parliamentary Question. Of course it is true that the housewives and the shoppers themselves can have an immense influence. If they think that a price has been raised they can challenge the man who sells the goods.

Mr. Roberts

Would my right hon. Friend agree with views expressed in another newspaper this morning—The Guardian—namely, that the resumption of talks is no more than the most basic logic and that the duty of the unions is clear—to use the period of the freeze to negotiate a policy which they can support?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I have already expressed the hope that both the TUC and the CBI will be prepared to consult with us on the future development of this policy.

Mr. Meacher

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that yesterday's package will give major windfall gains to capital holders at the expense of wage earners? Why has no provision been made for some sort of capital sharing for workers to compensate for wages forgone, and to prevent uncovenanted and provocative capital gains to shareholders through increased dividend ploughback?

The Prime Minister

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis. The restraint applies to dividends just as much as to wage incomes, as, indeed, did that of the previous Government when it was operative, and there was no special capital tax in that respect.

Mr. Redmond

We all hope that consultations with the TUC and the CBI will continue, but will my right hon. Friend use the opportunity of these talks to enlist the assistance of the trade unions in combating violence which is being done in the name of trade unions and committed by totally subversive elements in the country?

The Prime Minister

It is my belief that the great majority of trade union leaders and the trade unions are opposed to the use of violence and, in particular, to the use of violence in picketing. I hope, therefore, that they will be able to use their influence through the General Council of the TUC to prevent any recurrence of this in the future.

Mr. Lewis

Is the Prime Minister aware that, without waiting for the Bill to which he has referred, there is already legislation on the Statute Book which has an effect on the control of prices and profits and on crooked directors of companies? The Prime Minister and his Ministers, and the Department of Trade and Industry, have refused to take any action whatsoever, although by law they are compelled to do so. These questions have been raised not only by members of the public but by Members of Parliament, so what hope can we have in any new legislation when the Government consistently refuse to carry out the provisions of the Companies Act with regard to crooked company directors who are fleecing the general public?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept any of the hon. Gentleman's accusations. He has had many discussions on this matter with Ministers and officials, who have given him the full facts of cases he has raised.

Mr. Lewis

They have refused to do anything.

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman would like to shout his wares outside the House, those concerned could invoke the law.

Mr. Lewis

The right hon. Gentleman has dodged it, as he has dodged everything.

Mr. Adley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that most normal people in Britain will consider the proposals introduced yesterday as firm but fair? Is he also aware that many people cannot fail to be alarmed that in spite of the overwhelming wish of the majority of people for an answer to the problem of inflation, the Leader of the Opposition saw fit totally to reject the proposals before the Bill had even been published, and presumably before he had even seen it? That is something which many will find particularly hard to understand.

The Prime Minister

They may find it entirely incomprehensible.

Mr. Duffy

Referring to the Prime Minister's reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Wyn Roberts), does the right hon. Gentleman, as the man largely responsible for the climate in which the talks took place and, therefore, for their outcome, consider that there is a clear onus on him to resume the talks and dialogue with the TUC at the earliest possible moment?

The Prime Minister

My position has been made quite clear from the beginning. It was not I who broke off the talks on Thursday night—[Interruption.] Not in the least. It was the TUC which said that it could not accept, as a basis for negotiations, what both the CBI and the Government were able to accept.

Dr. Vaughan

Without having to refer to any newspaper, may I assure my right hon. Friend that the vast majority of people are completely behind the statement he made yesterday and would particularly congratulate him on appointing a Minister of Cabinet rank, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir G. Howe), to look after consumer interests?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. My right hon. and learned Friend will also be able to supervise the competition legislation which was announced in the Gracious Speech.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Skinner.

Mr. Skinner

What, already? Is the Prime Minister aware that the reason why the trade union movement can never accept any kind of package from his Government is the deceitful way in which this package or any other would be devised by his Government? That is exemplified by the fact that on 26th September the right hon. Gentleman made a remark to the world—if it wanted to listen—that any of the three parties that did anything inconsistent with that package would be breaking the tripartite agreement. Five days later the Prime Minister broke that agreement. The Government broke that agreement on rents policy on 1st October, and the trade union movement will never respond to this sort of tactic.

The Prime Minister

There was no agreement whatsoever about rents policy on 26th September, and it was not discussed in the talks between the TUC, the CIB and the Government. There was, therefore, no breach of any agreement whatsoever. All that the hon. Gentleman is saying is amplyfying clearly the political opposition on behalf of certain sections of the trade union movement to discussions with the Government of the day, instead of treating matters on their merits as industrial affairs.

Sir Gilbert Longden

Regarding prices of fresh foodstuffs, on which a great deal of complaint was made by the Opposition yesterday, is it not the case that in the Labour Party's package of 1966 they were expressly excluded?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the White Paper of the previous Administration it was said that the standstill period will apply except to the limited extent that increases in prices or charges may be necessary because of marked increases which cannot be absorbed, in costs of imported materials, or which arise from changes in supply for seasonal or other reasons". That is what we ourselves have said. The previous Administration went on to say: or which are due to action by the Government, such as increased taxation.

Mr. Grant

Will the Prime Minister be assured that although he may have taken leave of his senses we would not want him to regain them on the basis of the very dangerous policies advocated by his right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) with such regularity? Will the right hon. Gentleman, nevertheless, answer the question that he keeps avoiding? When he fought the last General Election on a policy which expressly rejected statutory wage control, why has he now taken this action? Is it not a fraud on the electors?

The Prime Minister

I have explained very clearly to the House why, in the event of the breakdown of the last talks, it is essential now to have a standstill, and then we can move on to a policy which will enable everyone to take advantage of it and to expand. That is the reason for it. When I hear complaints from hon. Members on the Opposition side of the House about attempts to raise prices since the end of the talks with the TUC and the CBI, and since the introduction of the statement yesterday, it surely makes it all the more necessary to have this standstill. The CBI standstill had expired on 31st October. I did not think it right to act until the General Council of the TUC had considered the position after its delegation had reported to it following the talks on Thursday night. We announced the standstill at the earliest possible moment after the General Council of the TUC had met.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

Will the housewives who are being asked to telephone and report prices rises be allowed to reverse the telephone charges? If not, the phone call could cost them more than the price rise.

The Prime Minister

What was suggested to the housewife is that she should, first, challenge the shopkeeper if she believes that a price has been unfairly raised. My hon. Friend will agree that the housewife is quite capable of doing this and dealing with the situation she finds. Secondly, if she wishes she can write to a Department or she can contact the local office, and that will save her a substantial part of the cost of a telephone call.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that his last answer is totally unrealistic in the circumstances of shopping? Does he really want to see housewives all over the country putting 2p and 10p pieces into a telephone coin box while they wait for the Government to look into a price tag? Having referred, as the right hon. Gentleman did, to the 1966 legislation—which he voted against and which he appealed to the TUC to reject after it had become law—will he now tell the House what was the percentage increase in prices in the 12 months following that legislation—which he opposed—and what estimate he makes of increases in prices under his legislation?

The Prime Minister

I was not suggesting that housewives should telephone straight away. I said that they are quite capable of dealing with shopkeepers themselves. I have rather more confidence in the housewife than the right hon. Gentleman has.

As to the statistics, if the right hon. Gentleman likes to put down a Question, he will get them.

Mr. Wilson

Does the Prime Minister mean that having studied all relevant parallels in this country and abroad, and having mugged up his answer to his hon. Friend, he does not know what was the figure in 1966, and he will not tell the House his estimate of the figure for 1972–73? Does he not know it?

The Prime Minister

I told the right hon. Gentleman that if he likes to put down a Question I will see that he gets an answer.

Mr. Wilson

I will tell the Prime Minister the answer. It was 1.4 per cent. Did he not want to tell the House, or did he not know the answer? It does not need to have a Question put down. Will he now answer the question? What estimate has he made against that 1.4 per cent. for his own freeze?

The Prime Minister

If the right hon. Gentleman knew the answer to the first part of his question there was no point in his asking it. As to the second part, I am not prepared to say what the final result will be over the period of the standstill. What we are doing is our utmost to steady prices.