HC Deb 20 March 1974 vol 870 cc1251-67

3.4 a.m.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

I hope that you will not rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I begin by adding my felicitations to those which have already been expressed to you in your new responsibilities. You will know of the immense stock of good will that there is for you in the House. We all realise the special difficulties which face the Chair in this rather curious Parliament. We hope in the interest of the House that all goes well with you.

If I may trespass a little more, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope you will allow me to say how much I appreciated the typical courtesy of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) in associating my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen) and myself with his remarks in the last debate. It was only the rules of order which prevented both my hon. Friend and I from leaping to our feet and joining in the debate.

The Minister of State pointed out, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater, that it was an important and worrying subject which must be considered at an intensely difficult time. We shall look forward, as the Minister indicated, to hearing the statements which the Government have to make in due course when the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries returns from Brussels. We wish him every success in solving what are enormously difficult and worrying problems.

I turn now to the Supplementary Estimate for the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. I greatly appreciate the presence of the Under-Secretary of State. My reason for raising the subject at this late hour is my immense anxiety about it. The basic question is simple. The good sense of Parliament votes a great deal of money to the Department, and it is justifiable to inquire what it is trying to do and what is the logic of its actions. The House will undoubtedly believe that, on the face of it, what has been proposed by the Department in general hitherto has been wise and justified, and I know that the hon. Gentleman in any case would not lend himself to any other policy.

Consumer protection is a bipartisan policy in the House. Long may that be so. I was proud of the previous Government's actions in consumer protection, which has a very long history going back to the Sale of Goods Act 1893. It is undeniable that as the standard of living has risen, so the subject has become more topical. Increased prosperity has led to wider purchases on a very much larger scale and to the need for protection and to deal with such abuses that existed and which might exist in future. We are all agreed about that. The House was delighted when a Minister was appointed for consumer protection and is equally delighted that the appointment was continued in the new Government. It is also delighted at the new coordination between various Government Departments and it is good to think that that, too, will continue.

The previous Government introduced the Fair Trading Act and the appointment of the Director-General of Fair Trading, who has made a very good start. It will be interesting to see how his work develops. Following that was the proposal to have a network of local consumer advisory services, but it worries many of us that local authorities will have to meet an extra burden of expenditure in this regard. We have also seen the strengthening of the consultative committees in the nationalised industries and the new rules for enforcement in the county courts. We have also had the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Act, the date-stamping of foodstuffs and the legislation to deal with pyramid selling. All of this has been very remarkable progress in recent years, not least during the term of the previous Government.

If we are to vote the money asked for in these Supplementary Estimates, I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will be able to assure us plainly that the sort of progress which has been made under the bipartisan policy will continue. We were all sorry that the Consumer Credit Bill could not be proceeded with. Many sensible suggestions had been made for its amendment and improvement. I hope that the Government intend to reintroduce it at an early date.

Under Item A there is proposed expenditure of £81,000 for headquarters offices, and under Item C expenditure of £56,000 for the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I support this expenditure in general, but there are two specific matters to which I want to draw attention.

It is absolutely right that we should legislate against monopoly and that we should say that we will not allow any commercial concern to abuse its authority, power, strength and financial resources in any way to hold the community to ransom. On the other hand, many of us are extremely concerned—I suspect that many hon. Members on the Government benches share this concern—at the increasing tendency of the State to establish monopoly. It is a tendency that increases rather than diminishes, and I warn the Under-Secretary of State that this is a matter that we shall all watch with care as time goes on.

I do not believe that size is necessarily a criterion of efficiency. Speaking as a supporter of the coal industry, I think that one of the tragedies of nationalisation is that we have not developed the coal industry in the practical ways we should have done. I hope that one lessen we shall learn from current international events is that this requires to be done effectively and properly.

When the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is doing its work, which it does with great efficiency—and it is an extraordinarily difficult field—one of the matters it looks at is the profitability of industries. I am bothered by certain comments I hear in the House and publicly on the subject of the profitability of British industry. If I may recount a personal experience, during the last election campaign at a multitude of public meetings I was asked questions on this subject. I invariably replied that the profitability of British industry on the whole was much too low. I am shocked to find that we are nearly at the bottom of the international league tables—for instance, those for investment published by OECD.

Investment in new plant and machinery can come only from profits. Although figures of tens or hundreds of millions of pounds may look large to the uninitiated or the uninformed, only if British industry is profitable can it give guarantees of employment today and in the future. Only if British industry is highly profitable can it invest the vast sums that are needed to keep it ahead in the strongly competitive race that we have to run vis-à-vis other nations. Only if British industry is highly profitable can it bring, as it needs to do, the maximum capital to the British worker's elbow.

I hope that, in their administration of the affairs of the Department, Ministers will have these matters very much in mind. It will be fatal for the country and its future prospects if we ignore the need to plant the seed corn for future prosperity and if we ignore the need to see that British industry is profitable at all times and considerably more profitable than it is to-day.

I pass to Subhead B. The Government are obviously concerned with the level of prices, and expenditure on the Price Commission is the greatest part of the total. How sincere and how fair are the Government in their endeavours? I am not making a judgment; I merely ask the question. The Government have taken several actions in a very short time. Indeed their speed has been remarkable, and this no doubt has created an impression in the minds of the public that the Government are determined to do all they can to keep prices down.

We all know the difficulties. The country is bedevilled by an international situation over which it has no control. I accept that intentions are honourable, and what is happening today follows from statements of the sort made by Labour Party candidates at the last election. Thus we have a freeze on rents, for instance, and today we had the great announcement, which will hit the headlines tomorrow, no doubt, that we are to hold down the price of bread.

On the face of it, that looks fine. In the county of Somerset, however, we have a local matter which is worrying us all, namely, the way in which local rates are being handled. This is quite out of line with the other work which the Department is doing. Indeed, one might almost say that what the Government are proposing is eccentric.

I have been nothing but a critic of the predecessors of the present Government in that regard, as hon. Members will recall. There is no need to go into detail. Announcements were made in January 1973 of changes in the arrangements. There was a loss of grant, which meant an inevitable increase in local rates. The House may recall that I questioned my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, and I complained very much at the way in which he was dealing with the matter. He was good enough to take note of the representations which came—I mention them in particular since we are talking about Somerset—from my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater and for Wells, among others. The upshot was that adjustments were made, and it was arranged that county districts were to receive additional assistance for the domestic ratepayer. That was good, and it was greatly appreciated.

Suddenly all is now changed again, and seriously changed. There have been two consequences. First, local districts, which are already grappling most efficiently with the problems of reorganisation, have a huge additional work load thrust upon them. This is creating enormous difficulties. The second problem is more obvious. Because of the Secretary of State's decision to abolish the variable domestic relief and to substitute for it a flat-rate relief of 13p for all authorities, the Somerset domestic ratepayer will face further rate increases of between 5½p and 9½p. In plain English, that means that in the county of Somerset we shall find a total increase in our rates of between 35 per cent. and 85 per cent. Those are astounding figures.

What representations has the hon. Gentleman's Department made to its fellow department? What is the Price Commission doing in this regard? Why should we be voting money for the salaries of good people to examine prices and do their best to keep prices down if, suddenly, the Government take other action which, quite unexpectedly results in swingeing price increases?

I should make plain that there is no question of our suddenly having become profligate in Somerset. There has been the most stringent economy, to such an extent that favourite projects which many of us have in our constituencies—I have mentioned the new youth club centre in mine—are not now being proceeded with. We have special difficulties in our county because, as my hon. Friends here tonight will know, our county has been truncated. It was against our will, because we voted against our colleagues and would willingly do so again if the situation arose. There are additional costs and expenses as a result. We have known a most serious situation which is not of our own making.

May I be a little more specific and talk about my constituency for a moment? Every shop and every business in my constituency will face an additional rate bill this year amounting to a 62 per cent. increase. We are not a rich county. It is not easy to get industry or business established in our part of the world. Yet we have no special assistance. Now there is to be this swingeing increase. It is not fair.

Let us look at the situation of the private ratepayer. I cannot give the exact figures because they have not yet been announced, but I think I have calculated them just about correctly. In the new Taunton Deane authority, which divides into four parts because it is an amalgam of four old local authorities, there is Taunton borough. Here the rates will increase by nearly 50 per cent. for private and council households alike. In the rural area rates will increase by nearly 80 per cent. for council and private households. In the Wellington borough area the figure is a "mere" 55 per cent., only just over half as much again. In the Wellington rural district, where I live, the increase is of the order of 85 per cent. Never before in my 18 years in this House have I known a situation in which there were such substantial increases without a transitional period at least. This is unfair.

I ought perhaps to justify that assertion. I can best do so by giving other examples. In Bristol, for instance, just by comparison—that is a rich place—the rates will rise by a mere 13 per cent. In Cardiff—if you do not mind my mentioning this, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because you will know of the friendly rivalry we have with South Wales, not least on the rugby field—rates are coming down by 16 per cent. You know better than anyone, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that Cardiff is richer than Taunton or Wellington or any village in my constituency.

There are in Bristol and Cardiff very much better services than we can afford in the countryside. We do not resent that or regret it. We wish you success, except, again, on the rugby field. Why should Cardiff's rates come down by 16 per cent. and the rates in Wellington rural area go up by 85 per cent? For the people in my constituency—council house tenants, proprietors of shops, people trying to run industries—this is nothing short of catastrophic.

We have all spent a good deal of time recently going round the villages and towns, talking to people. Everyone would agree that there has been much resentment about the difficulty which householders are experiencing in making ends meet, paying mortgages and the rest. What an added burden this is. I say without fear of contradiction that many people living in my part of the world, in our county of Somerset, will have real difficulty in making ends meet.

Why is this? What is the sense of voting substantial sums of public money to a Government Department which is assumed to be protecting the consumer when we find that some consumers, who are not the best off in our country, are not being protected but are being penalised as against people living in other parts of the country? What is their crime? I do not know what it can be.

I beg the Under-Secretary to consider this matter with very great care. Perhaps he cannot give me a full answer now. I shall understand if that is the case. I hope he will appreciate, however, that in all parts of the House there will be the most bitter resentment about this situation.

My colleagues and I, together with representatives of the county of Somerset, have asked to see the Secretary of State urgently. We have asked him to look again at the situation, and I hope he will——

The Under-Secretary of State for prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. Robert Maclennan)

Will the right hon. Gentleman make it plain which Secretary of State he has asked? I understand it not to be my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection.

Mr. du Cann

That is entirely right. We have asked to see the Secretary of State for the Environment. But this is the only method that I have of raising the matter tonight. It is the quickest and best way of doing it. I said at the beginning of my speech that I was determined to raise it because of the great interest that we all feel. I appreciate that I am not referring to the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection. In any event, my constituents do not differentiate between one Minister and another. They are all part of the same administration, and they must accept collective responsibility for what any one of them does.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I remind my right hon. Friend that the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection announced to the House today an element of subsidy designed to restrain the cost of living. The right hon. Lady was challenged by the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) about the problem of rural constituents with higher costs. The right hon. Lady said that she was concerned to protect people in the countryside against increased costs. I hope that she will also be knocking on the door of the Secretary of State for the Environment about this. What is the point of protecting council house tenants from an increase in the price of bread and at the same time slamming them with an increase five times as great?

Mr. Du Cann

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his support. I hope that the Under-Secretary will impress upon the right hon. Lady the need to have urgent conversations with the Secretary of State for the Environment. It is no good Parliament voting huge sums to this Department if it is to be ineffective. Furthermore, we shall not tolerate Ministers coming to this House and announcing with a flourish subsidies for this, that and the other, pretending that they are doing an effective job, if, behind the backs of us all, a most ineffective job is being done. My constituents do not care too much about a penny on a loaf of bread by comparison with a rate increase of £1 or £2 a week. The two are not even.

I wish the new Government every success. They have a difficult and tremendous job to do. But I hope that we shall not look back on this period and say that it was not so well done and that it was mere humbug. I hope we do not have to say that, and that the Under-Secretary will be able to give me a great deal of assurance.

3.30 a.m.

Mr. Frank McElhone (Glasgow, Queen's Park)

I did not intend to speak in this debate until the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) talked about humbug. I hope that he will not mind if I accuse him of humbug by going on to speak about rents, mortgages and prices affecting people in rural areas. I am sure that he is as much concerned about those who live in cities as those who live in rural areas. One reason for the help that is given by way of rate support to cities like Manchester, Birmingham and, I hope, Glasgow is that council tenants have suffered grievously.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Has the hon. Member spoken during one of the earlier debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill?

Mr. McElhone

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I spoke on Kilbrandon.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Then the hon. Member has exhausted his right to speak.

3.31 a.m.

Mr. Robert Boscawen (Wells)

I should like to add my congratulations to the splendid Celtic flavour that we have in the Chair. I am delighted to see you there, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) spoke about the advances that have been made in consumer protection during the last few years. I entirely support him in believing that hon. Members on both sides of the House want a better deal for the consumer. I am sure that this is a nonpartisan view. In this inflationary age it is vital that we do more to help people in their daily lives to carry out their essential shopping with the greatest efficiency and the least inconvenience.

My right hon. Friend mentioned profitability. I think that he was probably referring to large businesses. However, I hope that the new Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection will be very careful about what she says and does regarding the profits of small businesses and shops in rural areas. The profits of small shops and businesses represent the wages of the people who run them. Therefore, if those profits are to be cut, as is rumoured, by 10 per cent., or even 5 per cent., it will be a direct cut in the wages of the people running small businesses. The Minister will be working against her aim of helping the consumer if she cuts out the smaller businesses in this country.

My right hon. Friend drew attention to the fact that getting a better deal for the consumer also involved the cost of running and maintaining the house in which he lives.

My constituents are alarmed by the grossly inflationary increases in both domestic and business rates in our area. Our county and district authorities have done their best to contain the increases within the limits recommended by the last Government. They have taken a great deal of trouble to keep down costs to the ratepayer, who is the consumer. Therefore, it is even more galling when they find this sudden, unexplained and inexplicable reduction in the domestic rate relief.

It is a serious matter for those living in rural areas to have a sudden increase in rates. It affects them possibly more than those who live in the inner-city centres, because they do not have the inner-city advantages. They do not have adequate bus and rail services, adequate lighting, and, in many instances, adequate sewage services. They will find themselves paying this alarming increase—in some cases 85 per cent. more than last year—for services which they do not receive. It cannot be right, in the name of consumer protection, for consumers to be made to pay these huge sums to enable others living elsewhere to get advantages that are not available to them.

I draw the attention of the hon. Gentleman, whom we are delighted to see on the Front Bench in this responsible position, to the fact that it is all very well to utter platitudes about being on the side of the consumer and on the side of the council tenant and not wishing to put up his rent, and so on, but the fact is that what has been done for them has been greatly diminished by the extraordinary and arbitrary action of another Department on the question of rates. Why has it been done? We have not had this explained. One might think that the Minister had set out to deal a hefty blow to areas such as Somerset, where the Labour vote crumbled at the last election, but then one discovers that he has done the same thing for his own supporters' areas.

This is a gross injustice, because it is not like raising taxes according to what people can pay. As everyone knows, rates bear little relationship to what the individual can pay or to the income coming into the house. Many of my constituents will suffer grave hardship as a result of this withdrawal of a large part of the domestic rate relief.

I do not know how they will find the money. They cannot lay their hands on further income. Many of them are on small occupational pensions. Many of them saved for years in order to retire to our area. They laid their plans extremely carefully. They bought their houses on the basis of what they considered they could afford at the time, but following the recent election, they have discovered how wrong they were. This increase will make it extremely difficult for many of these retired people to continue to live in this area where expenses are rising rapidly. The price of petrol is one example of rising costs. This has nothing to do with the Government, but the increase has hit those who live in rural areas much harder than those who live in the cities.

I share the concern that has been expressed on various occasions by my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) about the alarming increase that has been imposed so arbitrarily as an act of instant government. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make representations to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment about the seriousness of this matter.

3.40 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. Robert Maclennan)

May I add my felicitations to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your recent appointment, which has given us so much pleasure?

When the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) said that consumer protection was essentially a nonpartisan matter, a sentiment echoed by his hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen), I was inclined to the view that there was substance in what he was saying—until the end of his speech, when he seemed to try to inject a note of partisanship into a discussion of the problem of rates.

I will deal briefly with that matter later, but I should like to begin by welcoming the right hon. Gentleman's response to the establishment of a separate Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. This has been generally welcomed in the House and the country. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in the debate on the Address on 14th March, we believe that this Department has come to stay, because it deals with matters which so fundamentally affect the life of every human being on the country.

This country is not alone in that opinion. There has been a separate department of consumer affairs in Canada for many years and, in the shape of the ombudsman, what amounts to a separate department in Sweden. The new Department will bring together the officials of the former Department of Trade and Industry and of the Ministry of Agriculture who were concerned with the prices of food, goods and services and those sections of the former DTI which were concerned with fair trading standards, weights and measures and consumer credit.

I was glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman's emphasis on the rôle which could be played by local authority consumer advisory services. If he expressed some anxieties about the burdens which this would place upon them, he will also have welcomed the recent statements by the Birmingham City Council about its anxiety to play a full part in this respect.

This concentration of effort on consumer affairs and the close linking of all the questions involved in the control of prices is a step forward in the machinery of Government and the easy and efficient dispatch of Government business. The marking and listing of prices and the subject of unit pricing have long been dealt with by those officials concerned with the administration of the Weights and Measures and Trade Description Acts. They will now work closely alongside their colleagues dealing with prices questions and I hope that this will show fruitful results in the legislation which we hope shortly to bring forward to deal with prices. It is also convenient to have in the same Department machinery for dealing with misleading prices and the control of prices charged by monopolies. Here I am thinking of the work of the Director-General of Fair Trading and the Monopolies Commission, both of which now report to my right hon. Friend, as does the Metrication Board, which has an increasingly important rôle to play as metrication extends to ordinary household goods.

The right hon. Member for Taunton regretted that the Consumer Credit Bill had been lost on the dissolution of Parliament. As was indicated in the Gracious Speech, the Government intend to reintroduce the Bill, with some amendments which I hope will prove acceptable to the House, as soon as possible. The general objectives of the Bill will be to provide consistent and adequate protection for the consumer across the whole spectrum of credit and hiring transactions; to build on the foundations of existing hire purchase legislation, adding much new protection and to extend it to a far wider range of transactions. It will also release the credit industry from certain existing out-dated restrictions and allow the development of competition between different types of business.

The Bill will start a new era in consumer protection in the credit field, giving the consumer comprehensive protection. We hope that it will be a flexible measure allowing for future developments and changing needs for protection to be dealt with by means of regulation. Increased availability of information will promote greater competition between lenders and enable consumers to choose the type and source of credit best suited to their needs as well as enabling them to find the cheapest credit.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of the announcement which was made today by my right hon. Friend on the question of the steps which would be taken, with the support of the House, to control the rise in bread prices which would otherwise have taken place on 25th March. The Government are considering at this time what further action might be appropriate in the longer term in this regard, including, for example, the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) earlier today and referred to by the hon. Member for Wells regarding the possibility of discontinuing the transport surcharge of ½p a loaf on sales in remote rural areas. These are matters which cause my Department considerable concern and which we are anxious to resolve.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of his anxiety that we should not under-estimate the importance of profits in our endeavours to maintain fair prices. It must be emphasised that the Government accept the important rôle played by profits and recognise clearly the connection between profits and investment. We want high profits, high wages, high productivity and high capital investment. But, however good the case may be for high profits in productive industries, we cannot accept that all profit—for example, in property speculation or as a result of very high interest rates—is automatically justified.

Some anxiety has been expressed, particularly by the hon. Member for Wells, about the possibility that the operations of the Price Commission in implementing the provisions of the Price Code would in some respects operate against profits. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Price Code was not the creation of the present Government; and, if there are to be any alterations or modifications, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman's strictures, which might have been better directed to his right hon. and hon. Friends, will be borne in mind.

The problem of investments and of profit is one essentially of confidence, but for ordinary people there is also the question of confidence in the efficacy of price control. The Government are committed to achieving a greater stability of prices. That is why we intend to introduce a Bill to pay subsidies and why we shall take such other action as is open to us—with the support of the House—to restrain the frightening rise in the cost of living.

The right hon. Member for Taunton devoted perhaps the larger part of his speech to the question of the impact of rate changes upon his constituents. He will appreciate that this is not a matter for me or for my right hon. Friend; it is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I shall, however, express my understanding of what the situation is.

Some of the matters of which the right hon. Member complained were plainly a direct consequence of action taken by the previous Government. Before the election the previous administration reached decisions on the amount and distribution of rate support grant to local authorities for 1974–75, but did not have time to make the rate support grant order embodying these decisions. Equally, there was no time for the present Government to review the main elements of those decisions. An order had to be laid and approved by the end of March for any grant at all to be payable to local authorities in April.

Apart from changes in proposals for domestic rate relief the order now laid incorporates the previous Government's proposals unaltered. A thorough review of the system will be undertaken, however, before the grant settlement for 1975–76. I can make no prediction at this time of the outcome of such a review. I have no doubt that what the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have said will be given close consideration by the Government. I simply reflect that the representations that hon. Members opposite made—to which the right hon. Gentleman drew my attention tonight—seem in the past not to have carried weight with his right hon. Friends in this respect; but that is a matter which can be pursued further with my right hon. Friend.

The previous Government always admitted, as I understood it, that their proposals would lead to sharp increases in non-domestic rates, presumably with the consequences of which the hon. Member for Wells spoke. The right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon)—then Secretary of State for the Environment—said that increases of between 20 per cent. and 30 per cent. would be typical and that they might be greater in some cases.

General rates in Somerset for 1973–74 range from 30p to 40p. On the limited information available I understand that 48p is likely to be a typical poundage for 1974–75. The increase in industrial rates in Somerset next year follows directly from the previous Government's decision. However, it is right to emphasise that notwithstanding the percentage rises to which the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Wells referred the rates represent only a very small proportion of industrial and commercial costs. In the last year for which meaningful figures are available1968—they constituted only 0.75 per cent. of these costs, although I am prepared to acknowledge that the figure has risen somewhat since then. There is, furthermore, the point, which will be recognised by the right hon. Gentleman, that rates on businesses are an expense that may be offset against corporation tax or Schedule D income tax.

I turn finally to the point which the right hon. Gentleman made about the Government decision to abandon their predecessors' proposals for a system of variable domestic rate relief. This would have given householders in England, varying from authority to authority, between 7p and 40p in the pound in an attempt, which we now recognise to have been abortive, to restrict domestic rate increases everywhere to a maximum of 9 per cent. Under this system ratepayers in Somerset would have had rate relief of between 18.5p and 22.5p in the pound.

However, the new Government considered that this system tended to perpetuate the unfairness of the grant distribution methods used in 1973–74 and earlier years, and that calculations of the domestic relief for each authority were, in any case, giving rise to many anomalies. They have, instead, prescribed a flat rate relief of 13p in the pound for all authorities in England. The Rate Support Grant Order will be debated in the near future and a Minister who is more directly responsible for these matters than myself will reply.

None the less, I welcome the opportunity given to me tonight to say something of the work being done by this new Department, the establishment of which will be of great service to the country in seeking to restrain the frightening rise in the cost of living.

Mr. du Cann

The hon. Gentleman says that he is sure that the work of his Department will be of assistance. That is what we all want. I went out of my way to wish him, and his Secretary of State, success, and my remarks in that connection were genuinely meant. But is the hon. Gentleman saying that he is wholly indifferent to this particular increase and that this is a matter for another Department? Is it the attitude of the hon. Gentleman that another Minister will be replying in a later debate and that he and his Minister will completely ignore the matter?

Mr. Maclennan

The right hon. Gentleman is a sufficiently experienced Member of the House and has listened to the debate with sufficient attention to realise that no such implication could properly be drawn from my remarks. I am as clear as he is about the importance of his point. I have replied at considerable length on a matter which does not directly fall within my Department's responsibility. The right hon. Gentleman will realise that it is a courtesy that I chose to do so rather than simply refer him to the debate which is likely to take place soon on the Rate Support Grant Order. I make no complaint about the right hon. Gentleman deciding to raise an important constituency matter, but he will not expect me to go any further on it tonight.

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