HC Deb 13 January 1975 vol 884 cc108-43

7.22 p.m.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Butter Prices Order 1974 (S.I., 1974, No. 1984), dated 29th November 1974, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th December, be annulled. I should like to make it clear right from the outset that the Opposition have always accepted the principle that statutory maximum prices should be imposed in the case of subsidised foods, although we have consistently pointed out that there are very considerable technical difficulties involved. We have, with equal consistency, been opposed to the Government's ridiculous proposals for the display of maximum price notices, as represented in Articles 5 and 6 of this statutory instrument, and opposed to the display of price range notices because we think that they are impractical, will be largely unenforceable, and will place an intolerable burden on small shopkeepers and an only slightly more tolerable burden on larger shopkeepers. We think that at best they will provide very little relevant information for consumers and that at worst they will be positively confusing.

Although we found the regulations in Articles 5 and 6 of the Bread Prices Order similarly unacceptable, and although any subsequent such orders will exacerbate any difficulties which will arise from this order, we have chosen to pray against this Butter Prices Order because, in doing so, if we should happen to delay the order we should not be depriving consumers of the benefit of the imposition of statutory maximum prices because the prices in the order are considerably higher than the prices at which these categories of butter are currently being sold.

I should like to deal first with some of the impracticalities involved and inherent in the regulations with regard to display notices. In addition to the two prominent notices which are required to be displayed by shopkeepers with regard to the Bread Prices Order—in which there are eight categories of bread and, in the case of each category, sometimes three different prices to be displayed—when these regulations are enacted retailers will have to display another two notices giving similar information about butter prices. By the time all the statutory maximum price orders have been imposed, retailers will have to display no fewer than 10 conspicuous notices, with over 100 prices. That is a conservative estimate. The Grocer magazine has estimated that it could be as many as 20 notices. We submit that the impracticalities involved make the whole exercise one of bureaucratic lunacy for shopkeepers and consumers.

During the passage of the Prices Act we made several attempts to get small shopkeepers exempted from the regulations, without success. However, at a later stage and in another place, Lord Jacques gave an undertaking that smaller shopkeepers would not be required to display price range notices. But smaller shopkeepers were defined as those having shops with a selling space of 250 sq. ft. or less—which is a very small shop indeed by any standards. Therefore, this concession will not be of very much help to small shops.

Whereas larger shops and supermarkets will encounter considerable difficulties in making a space available for these 10 conspicuous notices and will be able to do so only at the cost of very expensive shelf and display space—as far as they are concerned—for small shopkeepers this will be a sheer impossibility. My own corner shop is a sub-post office. Most of the sales transactions take place across the counter on and behind which goods are displayed. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House where such a shop is to display 10 conspicuous notices.

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

Will the hon. Lady clarify my mind on this matter? When she speaks of 10 notices, is she speaking of price range notices or of the notices required under this order?

Mrs. Oppenheim

I am speaking of the notices required to display maximum prices under this order and under subsequent orders with regard to maximum prices for other subsidised foods. There could be at least 10 such notices, in view of the foods which have been subsidised. With the bread price notices, three notices are required to be displayed. In the case of the Butter Prices Order two notices are required, but in other cases it could be more. We have estimated that there could be at least 10 notices.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House where such a small shop is to find the space to display 10 such conspicuous notices. Do the Government expect these shops to clear their stock and display only notices? Do they expect such shops to employ sandwich-board men to walk up and down outside them displaying notices because the shops have no space inside? That is the sort of ludicrous outcome of regulations of this type which could possibly result, and these are only some of the practical difficulties involved.

I turn now to some of the costs involved for both large and small shops. I am told that even for the large supermarket chains it will not be possible for these notices to be produced centrally. Because of the wide area covered by such chains, there are regional differences in prices and variations in the dates on which special offers start and finish in shops within the same chain. But, however great the costs will be for a large chain, proportionately the cost for the small shopkeeper will be very much higher. Indeed, it looks as though the only prosperous trade in the coming year will be that of the signwriter. In addition to the cost of production of the notices, which are also likely to be changed from time to time, many small shops which are run by pensioners or are husband-and-wife operations will have to pay for professional advice to help them to interpret these regulations. I defy anyone to interpret them without professional advice.

In all cases the additional costs will be passed on to the consumer in one way or another. The Grocer in its edition of 7th December following the introduction of the Bread Prices, Order said—I paraphrase—that it was simplicity submerged by bureaucracy, that it was a nightmare for shopkeepers, and that it would inevitably lead to confusion.

Having dealt with some of the difficulties of administration, the impracticalities and the costs involved, I turn to the very important question of what these notices are likely to be worth to consumers. We have always accepted that it is important to provide consumers with as much useful information as necessary, especially at a time of hyperinflation. Equally, successive Governments have accepted that where the information to be provided is of an essential nature or is of very great value, as in the case of unit pricing or open date stamping, there must be prominent display, but this is manifestly not the case with this order, because the plastering of walls with scores of notices and hundreds of prices will provide consumers not with information but with confusion.

I believe that the British housewife is among the most acute and keenest of shoppers in the world. Indeed, she must balance her weekly budget with a great deal more difficulty and often with greater success than many Chancellors of the Exchequer. However keen and astute a shopper she may be, I do not believe that a housewife shopping, as she often is, under pressure with a heavy shopping basket and with three children will start wading through hundreds of prices upon a wall until she finds, first, the right food, then the right category, and then the relevant price, and that she will then embark upon the whole procedure all over again when she chooses the next subsidised food.

Nor do I think that many pensioners will feel equal to this challenge. Indeed, when I was conducting a small investigation of my own last week with regard to the display of maximum price notices for bread I noted in one supermarket that only one person in five had even noticed the notices and that of those who had noticed them only one in three had referred to the price.

To make matters worse, I am not at all sure that the information which is required to be given under Article 5 is relevant information for consumers because, unlike the requirement in the Bread Prices Order, Article 5 would seem to require a retailer to display a notice of maximum prices only in relation to those butters caught by Article 4 and that those prices are those specified in the table, regardless of whether they are the prices charged in the shop or whether they are the statutory maximum price for that shop.

Even the most intrepid consumer may not be able to discover whether he is being charged more than the statutory maximum price in that shop, nor will enforcement officers, with all their expertise, be able easily to ascertain this, if indeed it will be possible for them to ascertain it at all. So perhaps Opposition Members will be forgiven if the thought crosses their minds momentarily that the purpose of these notices is not to inform consumer at all but is purely for party political propaganda.

Having dealt with some of the impractical and costly aspects of the display of prices notices, I turn to the serious difficulties of enforcement. Even if trading standards offices throughout the country, most of which are short staffed, were to suspend all their other consumer protection activities under the Fair Trading Act, the Consumer Credit Act, the Supply of Goods Act and the Weights and Measures Act, and were to concentrate on enforcing the requirements of this order they would not be able to do more than carry out spot checks here and there to discover whether the requirements were being observed at all, and I doubt very much whether they would be able to do even this.

When I was carrying out the investigation to which I referred earlier I noted also that only about one in 10 amongst smaller shops were displaying notices. So I checked up with a number of chief trading standards officers. One chief trading standards officer told me "I am in no position to check up on retailers. I am grossly understaffed. What is more, this whole question has been deferred by my council pending the receipt of the Government circular on rate expenditure." So much, then, for widespread enforcement of the order.

As to the second point, there are some very serious loopholes and defects in the drafting. In Article 4 there seems to be the greatest loophole of all, because it requires that the statutory maximum price will be imposed only in respect of those butters packed for sale by retail—not actually sold by retail, it will be noted, but that is perhaps a minor loophole compared with some of the others—in rectangular packs of not less than 8 oz. and not more than 1 lb.

Are not the Government aware that many varieties of butter are sold in curls and in rounds? One of the most popular varieties of butter sold by one of the biggest dairies in London is in the form of a round pack in a square box. Under Article 4, is a round pack of butter in a square box not eligible? Is a square pack of butter in a round box not eligible? Is a rectangular pack of butter in a round box not eligible? Is a round pack of butter in a rectangular box not eligible? It seems that the possibilities for evading the requirements are endless. One envisages shelf upon shelf groaning with square packs, round packs, triangular packs, all manner of packs of butter none of which is subject to the maximum price legislation but all of which are in receipt of subsidy moneys.

What about the 4 oz. packs that many supermarkets sell in response to the requests by and needs of pensioners? Are pensioners to be advised by the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State, in the same silly way as she advised them about bread, to ask retailers to cut the pack in half? If they are, such packs will almost certainly be exempt from the requirement, because a rectangular pack cut in half often becomes a square.

But this is by no means the only loop-hole in the order. Some very important representations have been made to me by experts in the field that it will be virtually impossible to enforce the provisions of Article 3. Because the base period is a retrospective date in relation to the making of the order, it is practically impossible for enforcement authorities to obtain evidence of actual retail prices on or about that date, or that will be so in many cases. In some cases national companies can produce documentary evidence of retail prices, otherwise the retailer's word must be accepted.

However, paragraph 9(5) of the schedule to the Prices Act clearly states that nothing in that paragraph shall be taken as requiring a person to answer any questions, or to give any information, if to do so might incriminate him.

Although some firms may keep records of weekly sales, the base period is any seven-day period and comparisons have to be made within a seven-day period commencing on the same day of the week as the base period. However, it is extremely unlikely that traders will be able to produce records showing the quantities and prices of butter purchased or sold during the base period as defined during the relevant seven-day cycle.

Further, Article 3 provides that special offer prices are to be ignored in base period calculations. But by virtue of Article 1(3)(b), if all the butter sold in the base period was a "special offer" a new base period applies. In this case references to 13th August are to be taken to be references to the first date thereafter at which butter was sold at a price which is not a "special offer". It is therefore practically impossible to calculate a base price if all the prices up to 13th August are "special offers".

It can be seen that it will be very difficult, in fact almost impossible, especially in the latter circumstances, for enforcement officers to arrive at the price referred to in Article 3 and, therefore, equally impossible to know whether the price which is being charged is according to the price in Article 4 or Article 3 and which in fact is the lower of these two prices for the retailer.

Furthermore, and just as important, it is absurd to exclude butter sold at a "special offer" price from the calculation of profit in the base period but not from the calculation of profits which are made after the order comes into operation and which are not to exceed the level of the base period. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether this situation could arise. This is a very complex situation, and, if it is so, it would mean that intolerable restrictions would be placed on some retailers and their overall profits on butter could be reduced to as little as 5 per cent.

It appears, therefore, that, in addition to the impracticability involved and all the difficulties which will accumulate and intensify with each new regulation which is introduced, there exists in this order a conflicting and tangled web of enforcement anomalies and restrictions which will confuse enforcement officers and retailers alike, while any protection which consumers may have had from the order in the imposition of maximum prices will be very much diluted by the loopholes in Article 4 and by the real enforcement difficulties which have been brought to our attention.

All too often the Government tend to dismiss legislation which has shortcomings or which is inadequate in some way by saying that it is better than nothing. But to make regulations which can be blatantly disregarded because they are unenforceable is to bring the law into disrepuate. This order for the most part represents an exercise which appears to be a combination of bureaucratic lunacy and a party political public relations exercise. It is a nightmare for shopkeepers. It is another step on the road to confusion for consumers, and I hope the Government will replace it with a measure which is more adequate, more enforceable and more realistic than this.

7.43 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I think I should declare an interest in that I am a farmer and, therefore, have produced many gallons of milk, which of course makes butter. Therefore, perhaps I have a vested interest in this matter, and it is important to get that quite clear from the start.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) for what she has said. She is a housewife and a Member of Parliament of considerable experience in these matters, visiting supermarkets and shops where these problems are to be found, and it was interesting to me, as a rural man who normally goes to the village shop only, to listen to all the problems and difficulties experienced by shoppers in the towns.

I must confess that I am opposed to the principle of subsidising butter, and, therefore, I am opposed to this order. I believe that this sort of subsidy and control brings considerable distortion to the whole industry. It certainly does to the milk industry. It presents many difficulties to the Milk Marketing Board. I notice the problems which Article 5 will produce. It requires in shops the display of information about maximum prices. Certainly it places a much greater burden on small shopkeepers who probably already have many problems to deal with and not the staff to cope with these problems.

I was interested, too, when my hon. Friend referred to the problems of the housewife in view of the large number of prices with which she has to deal. Not many housewives and busy mothers have the time to look at these long lists. I believe the housewife trusts the shopkeeper to look after these matters for her.

It is a pity that the Government have to make things so complicated for the small shopkeeper, particularly in the rural areas where there are not many staff and where there are probably many other matters to deal with. I therefore welcome what my hon. Friend has said. I think she is absolutely right in highlighting the problem and the burden experienced by the small shopkeeper and the housewife.

We need price control if we subsidise butter.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)


Mr. Mills

Well, I would have thought so. Otherwise, conditions could be distorted even more.

Mr. Ridley

Does not my hon. Friend acknowledge that there is any merit in competition at all? Why does he suddenly believe in price control and subsidies? Surely, competition can look after this situation whether there is a subsidy or not.

Mr. Mills

I do not think so. If my hon. Friend had listened carefully to what I said he would have known that I am opposed to butter subsidies—and that there is no need for price control.

I should have thought that there is a principle at stake here, certainly from the point of view of British agriculture. If we have to import and pay the world price for butter, a price much higher than the price for home-produced butter, the Government of the day, in their desire to keep down the cost of living, are forced to bring in price controls and subsidies. I think it would be far better to turn to the home farmer to produce the butter that is required.

The interesting point is that most of the butter that will be controlled under this order will be imported. The British housewife at the moment does not have much of a chance to buy, let alone taste, United Kingdom butter. I wonder whether the Minister has considered that fact. It is surely better to rely on the home farmer to produce the butter that is required.

It is interesting to note that the Government have seen fit to put in column I of the table in the order Butter produced in the United Kindom (other than blended) and in column 2 its price is given as 17p per 8 oz weight.

This is a sick joke. At the moment there is virtually no butter being produced in this country. I believe that this is due once again to the distortion which the Government have brought about in the milk industry. If we subsidise liquid milk we distort the whole pattern of milk distribution and sales, and in the end we get a shortage of milk for manufacturing purposes.

The situation is going to look even bleaker. The number of inseminations which are taking place in the dairy herds is declining. The number of dairy cows slaughtered is increasing. Therefore, the future looks bleak for butter production. We shall have to rely more and more on imported butter. The Minister ought to speak strongly and pointedly to his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to seek a new impetus and to ensure that we get the milk that is required to produce the butter.

We also find in column 1 of the table the following words: Any other variety of butter (other than blended)". What does this mean? What other butter is there? Can the Minister tell me? Does he have in mind unsalted butter? Is he thinking about farmhouse butter? We should like an explanation. We can understand what Blended butter of any variety and of any origin is, just as we can understand what is meant by New Zealand butter and butter produced in the European Economic Community, but what on earth is Any other variety of butter (other than blended)"? Finally—I wonder why my hon. Friend did not spot this; perhaps I have it wrong—Article 8 provides: A person shall not, in connection with the sale of any butter, enter, or offer to enter, into any artificial transaction or make or demand any unreasonable charge. Does that mean that the Government would prosecute a supermarket which put a condition on the purchase of butter? When there was a shortage of sugar—this certainly happened in one or two cases in my constituency—conditions were put on the buying of sugar so that, if a person wanted a pound or two, he or she had to buy some other commodities.

This is a serious matter, and it would be even more serious if applied to butter, especially for elderly people and pensioners who would be put in difficulty if they were required to buy some other commodity at the same time as buying a little subsidised butter. If that is the meaning of the article, I welcome it, because I believe that in some places there tends to creep in the idea that such conditions can be applied as a means of encouraging the sale of other goods.

I repeat that I am not happy about the order. I do not like the subsidising of butter, and I do not, therefore, agree with the order. I hope that the Minister will turn his attention to the real problem here, which is the problem of supply from United Kingdom sources. It is vital that we get back to producing our own butter. It is very sad that Britain, with all its opportunities, its climate, its quality of grassland and the ability and knowledge of its farmers, should not be supplying all the home-produced butter that we need. What point is there in putting before the House an order which refers to Butter produced in the United Kingdom if we jolly well do not produce that butter?

7.52 p.m.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)

It was not my intention to intervene in the debate, but I felt that someone from this side should break into the Opposition's moanings and groanings about the order. I wish to make clear that although on this occasion I speak in solitary majesty on these benches the view which I express is generally shared among my hon. Friends. Many of us—indeed, almost all of us, I believe—welcome the use by the Secretary of State of her powers to control prices. Many of us have, in fact, advocated a far wider use of her powers of price control.

Will the Opposition come clean about their attitude? I hope that we shall be told what their opposition to the order is really about. The truth is that they are afraid of the profit factor involved. That can be the only reason for their objection. They may criticise the detail of the order and point to small defects in its terms. The hon. Lady the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) bandied about all sorts of subtle intricacies, but she had no alternative to offer. She was prepared to criticise, but there came from her no word of practical alternative to help the consumer.

In my view—I am sure that this view is generally shared among my hon. Friends—if we are seriously to get down to tackling the problem of inflation, there must be early and much greater use of price control by the Government.

Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)


Mr. Roberts

I shall not give way. I shall only be a minutes or two.

We welcome the use of price control over the whole range of subsidised commodities to start with, and, more than that, we should like to see the Secretary of State use her powers of price control in respect of commodities which are not subsidised because, as I have said, that is the only way we can tackle the inflation problems now confronting us.

In contrast to hon. Members opposite, many of my hon. Friends and I wish to see much greater use of subsidy, and we look forward to the day when the Secretary of State applies her powers to a far wider range of foodstuffs. Perhaps she will use her well known powers to convince her right hon. Friends at the Treasury that many of us feel that there may be something fundamentally fallacious in the Government's present philosophy, believing, as we do, that the best way to tackle the various problems facing us now could be through the broad use of subsidy accompanied by increases in direct taxation. That would be much more egalitarian and a far more effective way to tackle many of the problems of inflation and unemployment which now trouble us.

However, without drifting further into those other matters, I welcome this limited measure of price control. We look forward to a wider use of price control over far more commodities, and further advance in the general subsidy policy.

Again, I ask the Opposition why they object to the order. Their only reason can be the question of profit.

Mr. Peter Mills


Mr. Roberts

I will not give way.

I am sure that that is the reason. We all know that the Tories have opposed food subsidies, some of them expressing their opposition very strongly. The hon. Lady would not tell us, but the Opposition as a whole oppose food subsidies because they are one of the most effective redistributive techniques used by this Government, distributing in order very largely to help the poorer sections of the community money that comes in taxation from the wealthier sections. That is the basis of the opposition to subsidies in general, and one can only imagine that the objections raised tonight are part and parcel of that same attitude, that unholy and negative attitude, which the Opposition display to the problem of inflation as a whole.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

I remind the House that the order is fairly narrowly drawn. It refers to butter subsidies, not to subsidies in general.

7.59 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Mayhew (Royal Tunbridge Wells)

I welcome the opportunity to set at rest the imagination of the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts), who conjured up the most lurid reasons for our opposition to the order. I oppose it for three reasons: first, because it imposes a painful addition to the burdens already borne by the small shopkeeper; second, because it is unnecessary; and third, because it is harmful.

There was a time when the shopkeeper's function was to keep his shop and nothing else. Those were happy days for the shopkeeper and the housewife, but these days the small shopkeeper spends as much time collecting revenue for the Government, or otherwise acting as the Government's agent, as he does in earning his living. These are bad days for the shopkeeper and for the housewife in consequence. VAT, pay-as-you-earn, national insurance, graduated pensions and butter and beef coupons are all examples of where the Government rely upon the small shopkeeper to act as their agent for collection. He does it for no pay and at great cost to himself, because the time that it takes him represents a loss of earnings. He does this at the same time as he is penalised by the Government as a self-employed man, under the impost of an 8 per cent. increase on his national insurance contributions. He does it when he is further mulcted by the increases in his rates, which hit him harder than they hit the chain store, and he has to face the housewife, who complains about rising prices which are not his fault.

It is in this context that the Secretary of State has brought forward her order. I want to speak tonight particularly on behalf of the small general grocer in the country village or back streets of towns. I do not suppose that anyone here would deny that these people render a great service to the community. They are open at all hours and they stock a huge variety of goods. They provide a personal service of the kind that the planners are now all too belatedly regretting having swept away in so many urban areas.

It ill becomes a Government who rely so heavily on the sacrifice and co-operation of shopkeepers to treat them publicly, as the order does, by obliging them to display these notices, as though they are likely to cheat and break the law given half a chance. It is unnecessary to take that attitude, because the inspectors who are employed to check these notices, and the prices which are entered upon them, could perfectly well check on maximum prices enforcement in the shops. If the task was worth while the inspectors could be employed to do that, but that is not necessary, because the shopkeeper, upon whom the Government rely to such a great extent, is a law-abiding member of the community, and if a maximum price is imposed he can be relied upon in the vast majority of cases to abide by that decision.

I oppose the order because it is harmful. With each additional obligation which is heaped upon these shopkepers more of them will give up. That would mean that more country people would lose their local shops, more petrol would be used by customers driving to the big towns to get their provisions, and more monopolies would be created among the big chain stores. I wonder if that is what the hon. Member for Cannock wants. I am greatly tempted to follow up what he said and explain why we believe price control to be bad, why it always operates in the long run against weaker members of the community, but I am not allowed to do so since that would be out of order.

Last week I attended a meeting of more than a hundred small grocers from South-East Kent. That week one of them had decided to give up because the burden of administrative obligations meant that it was no longer worth while for him to continue. Very many others that night were near breaking point. If they went it would be great injustice to them, and a great loss to the housewife.

Whenever prices are controlled non-senses are created, but the nonsenses need not be as damaging or as absurd as the nonsenses that this order will create.

8.6 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I wish to add one comment to what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) said about the speech by the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts). The hon. Member might well have done better to preserve what he called his solitary majesty in silence, because the implication of what he said was that the money to finance food subsidies would be coming from taxation. I refer him to the Chancellor's Budget, in which the right hon. Gentleman admitted that he was £6,300 million short. Surely, therefore, the hon. Member realises that the money to pay for the subsidies is being printed, which causes further inflation, and, therefore, the subsidy policy is directly contrary to the control of inflation. If the hon. Member intends to intervene in these debates, it would be wise for him to brush up a little on his economics before he does so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) made a magnificent speech, and I agreed with every word of it except for the first sentence. I congratulate her on her expertise and on the research she has done into the order. However, her first sentence was that the Opposition were in favour of price control where subsidy was involved. I disagree with her. She must not speak on behalf of the Opposition, because I am a member of the Opposition and I am violently opposed to price control in all its forms. Why should our attitude towards price control vary according to whether subsidy is involved or not? I can think of no conceivable reason why the desirability or otherwise of price control should depend on whether the commodity in question is subject to a subsidy or a tax.

If there were no price control on butter and a grocer sold the butter at a high price, putting the subsidy in his pocket, all the shoppers would go to another grocer who sold the butter at a lower price. Competition would be the determining factor, and competition in our retailing industry is very strong and effective. It works just as well be there a tax or subsidy on any commodity. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester must think again about the extraordinary doctrine that where there is subsidy there must be price control. Many items produced directly on the farm have been subsidised since the 1947 Act but there was never price control.

I therefore advise my hon. Friend to follow some of my other hon. Friends into the Lobby against the order, which is most un-Conservative and not one that I can support. I commend her speech to herself, because if she did not convince herself by her speech I should be very surprised. It was so effective in dealing with the nonsenses of the labels, the technical difficulties and the enforcement officers' problems that I cannot believe she was left with any doubts that she was on a winner and that she should press forward with her argument.

I echo what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells said about the small shopkeeper. My constituency contains a large number of villages and most of them have a small shop. The effect of price control on the economics of these shops is disastrous. Their economic advantage is that they save people having to travel to town, which in many cases involves an eight or 10-mile journey. The customers would willingly pay higher prices for their groceries because of the saving in petrol and bus fares to the supermarket. This service is respected by the villagers and provides a living for the shopkeepers, who can charge higher prices to compensate for the lower turnover.

That system has worked perfectly and there has hitherto been little or no threat to the tiny village shops in the Cotswolds. However, the effect of the bread order or the butter order is to limit those items on which the shopkeepers may charge extra. The economics of those rural shops will be severely damaged. People will have to travel, using fuel and money that they need not have used but for the extraordinary bureaucratic lunacy that the Government are imposing tonight.

I do not think that the Government understand how much their action is resented. They do not understand how much hatred and bitterness they are storing up for themselves among those who seek to promote small enterprises as a result of the increased self-employed insurance contribution, the swingeing increases in rates and the bureaucratic interference through price control—all the endless difficulties heaped upon people who are useful members of society. They are people who have done no harm and who are not on the commanding heights of the economy. They are not even fit for the National Enterprise Board. If the Government will not desist from petty regulations and price control of this sort, they will find that they have serious trouble on their hands.

The order is a mistake. Price control is unnecessary. Butter prices are below the permitted maxima in the order. The likely effect of the order is, therefore, that some shops will increase their prices to the maxima. If costs rise to the point where the order restrains prices, many small shops will be put out of business. The infinite variety of quality, quantity and service involved in retailing, even with a fairly standard commodity like butter, is such that butter is not conducive to price control.

I shall be happy to divide the House if my hon. Friends will support me in registering a protest against legislation of this kind, which is totally out of keeping and unnecessary.

8.2 p.m.

Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)

When we discussed in Committee the part of the Prices Bill, now the Act, which enables the order to be brought before the House we tried to make a distinction whatever my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) says, between the possibility of having to control prices which are the subject of a subsidy and those which are not, and the way in which that might be done. I shall not enter the wider debate with my hon. Friend, because I do not think that you would approve, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I wish to concern myself with the opposition in Committee, continued tonight, to the way in which the Government seek to control the price of subsidised goods. We had a long argument in Committee in which we sought to persuade the Minister that he should make clear to us exactly what he proposed. Time and again we pressed him to say what kind of notices there would be. We pressed him to give us an example, to describe his consultations with the trade, to assure us that the system would be satisfactory, to tell us just how much support he had. Time and again he rebuffed us, and we left the Committee no wiser, but with our doubts greatly increased.

As a result of the bread order we already have examples of the beginnings of the bureaucratic nightmare we foresaw. The order we are debating will continue that nightmare. On both sides of the House, perhaps more on the Opposition benches than on the Government benches, there have been continuing doubts about the wisdom of a subsidy policy. Various kinds of subsidy, both producer and consumer, have been suggested. As we come nearer and nearer to the nitty gritty, as it affects the retailer and the housewife, we begin to see why the doubts have been accumulating. With an order such as the one before us the dangers of such a policy are beginning to be more and more exposed.

Is it not time for us to question the policy and to call a halt to it? The Secretary of State is already foreseeing a situation in which she may have to say of the bread subsidy "Enough of that." In the context of the order, is it not time for us to say "Enough of this"?

In the bread shops we can already see notices under the bread order. I recently went into a little bakery where the shopkeeper had had a plastic container produced to contain the little bits of paper necessary under the order, which requires clear writing—or printing. He had done his best, but nobody was looking at the notice. It was irrelevant to those who were buying the rolls and cream cakes.

The hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts), who has popped in and out of the debate like a jack-in-the-box, contributing most weightily, said that the present order is the Government's contribution to keeping prices to the housewife under control. In fact, the order will permit a shop to display a price above that currently being paid in it, and above the maximum price that can be paid in that shop. How is it supposed to help a housewife to see displayed in a shop a price totally irrelevant to any price she could pay in that shop? She may find a shop which is being very villainous and seeking to increase the price of butter above the statutory price, but nobody has produced any evidence of that. Nobody has suggested that it is likely. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) said that competition will bring that under control. I am sure that the Government are not suggesting that many retailers will seek to make a quick killing on butter. Of course, they are not.

The enormous rigmarole in the order imposes great burdens on small and large retailers. Under the order shopkeepers will have to put up pieces of paper, parts of which will be in blacker type than others. The price of the butter which happens to be the most popular variety in the shop or chain in question must be printed in darker type. It is possible that in the Wandsworth branch of a chain of supermarkets a variety that is very popular will not have its price printed in darker type because that chain as a whole has another variety of butter which is its most popular except at Wandsworth. Therefore, we have a further confusion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) has spoken about the shapes and sizes of butter packs. We had similar confusions over bread, and there were similar examples of absurdities with purchase tax; people were able to point them out over many years. There are always peculiarities at the fringe of such a matter. I am sure that the Minister will not tell us that there will not be orders on other subsidised foods. If there are such orders there will be a series of notices displayed in shops, notices which may be wholly irrelevant to the purchases by the housewife.

I cannot understand how the hon. Member for Cannock or anyone else can suppose that that is offering one jot of assistance to housewives. They are finding shopping more and more of a nightmare. If we talk to housewives, or consider the research that has taken place on shopping habits, it seems that there was a time when shopping was a pleasure. British housewives always went shopping more often than was necessary because they found it enjoyable to do so, but nowadays it seems that shopping is becoming a dismal nightmare and that the housewives dread doing it. All the complications that we are introducing do not help the housewives. Some consumer legislation offers them help, but measures such as this make life more difficult for the sake of a political charade. The housewife is the person who will bear the burden of this measure most.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) mentioned the grocers. I am aware of the views of the North-West branch of the Grocers' Federation. It is clear that the grocers are suffering. They have rallied and they have dealt with a whole series of matters ranging from national insurance contributions, which we have mentioned in passing, to the effect of measures such as the one we are now discussing. There is growing concern about the added paraphernalia and bureaucracy with which they are having to deal. The Minister should not under-estimate their concern.

This is not a debating point. There is real concern throughout the country. Retailers and other groups are finding more and more paraphernalia landing on their doorsteps. We must call a halt.

It is up to the Minister not to give us the usual flummery answers that we have had before but to justify in specific terms the additional job which he is asking so many people to carry out. He must justify it as necessary. Will it help him? Will it help the law enforcement officers and the housewife?

Mr. Peter Mills

And the producer.

Mr. Silvester

Yes, and the producer. But let us concern ourselves with those who deal with the shops. The Minister must justify this measure in specific terms, and I beg him to do so.

8.23 p.m.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

Sufficient points have already been raised by my hon. Friends to indicate the paucity of thought and the illusion of effectiveness contained in this measure. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) indicated its complexity. Those of us who have studied it and tried to make sense of it must agree that it is extremely complicated. We have shown that almost certainly it cannot be enforced effectively unless a large increase in resources is available to law enforcement officers. We have indicated that the consumer is likely to be confused. We have also laid stress on the point that shopkeepers will have to bear the brunt of the difficulties which this measure will most assuredly bring.

I shall amplify two or three points. I begin with the situation of shopkeepers. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) said that he does not believe that the feeling of shopkeepers throughout the country should be ignored by the Government. I go further than that. I say that there is a movement amongst traders throughout the country to ensure that they make the Government fully aware of their disenchantment with the onerous burden that they have to undertake.

I attended Leeds Town Hall at three o'clock on Sunday afternoon. A meeting had been called by a federation representing the self-employed. Over 1,000 people attended with a view to deciding whether a branch could be formed in Leeds. The feeling of the meeting was militant. A number of those present were retailers. They were extremely angry because of the burdens—for example, rates, VAT, electricity charges, postage and the general administration of their businesses—which have fallen upon them in recent months. I suspect that they would be equally angry if we were to explain to them in full what those of them who are grocers will have to undertake in relation to this measure.

Article 3 of the order seems to mean that whereas those who are trading in the supermarket style or in multiples will have the special offer prices excluded from the base price calculation, those who are smaller shopkeepers and are less inclined to be able to make special offers will not have it excluded. If special offer prices are excluded from the base price calculation, the maximum price available to the multiple will be significantly higher. It will allow the multiples most assuredly to move up their margins because they will be able to tender a special offer at a less reduced price than before. It will enable them by law to increase their profitability and to sell their butter to the consumer at a higher price.

At the same time, because the smaller shopkeeper does not in general provide the special offer, he is being asked to display maximum price notices which are very much closer to the average price that the consumer pays when buying from the smaller store. Therefore, the smaller shopkeeper will have much less room within which to try to meet the increased costs which he has to pay.

There will be one possible course of action. The smaller shopkeeper may offset some of the increased costs that he will incur not on subsidised prices but on the prices of other goods he may stock. He may increase the price of goods which are not subject to this type of order. In that way the consumer will find himself faced with increased prices at all kinds of shops. The special offer prices for butter will be allowed to be increased towards the maximum. A reasonable margin will be maintained for the multiple and the smaller shopkeeper will be able to increase his prices, thus passing on his increased costs. He will be able to do so by increasing the price of other goods.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

I do not follow the hon. Member's logic. For some strange reason he suggests that shopkeepers will take advantage of the maximum price so as to offer reduced prices at effectively higher prices. His hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew), however, has told us what honourable men the shopkeepers are. As they are such honourable men as the hon. and learned Gentleman describes, surely they would offer the consumer their butter at the minimum price in the same way as previously. Conservative Members cannot have it both ways.

Mr. Shaw

It is refreshing once again to have the attendance and the assistance of the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts). Does he expect the trade to take no notice of an order that specifies maximum prices? If he expects the Government to introduce an order which permits maximum prices, he must expect the retailers in question to realise that such prices are permitted maximum prices. We may now see in the shops not a higher price but the Government's price followed by the words "Our price is X". There will be a narrower differential and a narrower choice of goods available to the housewife.

Another matter which must be considered is whether the consumer receives real protection. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester has given an indication of the confusion with which the consumer will be faced. But that will be as nothing when eventually orders are introduced for all subsidised goods. We must expect that the traders will do their best to co-operate with what the Government seek to do, but there will be the bold type and also the lesser type on the price range notices, which come under another part of the Department's activities.

Over the next six or nine months, if this kind of government proceeds, we shall see shops papered from floor to ceiling with prices orders and notices of ranges of price. It cannot be argued seriously that this sort of thing is in the best interests of simple shopping or of consumer protection.

In Committee on the Prices Act we took the view, in considering the question of subsidy, that maximum prices might have to be notified in relation to subsidised goods, but we did not expect that it would be necessary to have a complicated machinery to do it. We understood that these prices could be announced and advertised by the Government and would be available at the consumer advice centres about which we hear so much and so many of which are being instituted by the Department. There is really no need for the maximum prices to be transmitted in the complicated way involved in the order.

The retail trades are now organised in bodies in order to discuss with the Secretary of State matters such as the transmission of prices. Those bodies could well be advised on how to handle such matters and they could, as is their wont, carry out what the Government wish without being cluttered up by burdensome red tape.

We can say with a great deal of vehemence that this is a highly complex matter set out in a way which will be confusing and difficult to maintain. The order will create new difficulties in the already narrow margin between the smaller shops and survival. They already carry great burdens, and the order will increase them still further. There are ways of informing the people of maximum prices. It is unnecessary to do it in this way. I hope that the Government will have second thoughts and come back with something simple, sensible and, above all, comprehensible.

8.32 p.m.

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

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the order and to reply to points which hon. Members have made. During the passage of the Prices Act, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear that she would use her price-fixing powers to regulate the prices of subsidised foods. With the exception of the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), it has been generally recognised in the debate that she was right to do so. The Bread Prices Order was the first to be made under the powers of Section 2 of the Act. The Butter Prices Order is the second. The order has three purposes.

The first purpose is to ensure through margin controls that the full amount of the subsidy on butter is passed through to the consumer. This is the difference between the producer subsidies referred to by the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury and the subsidies we are discussing. The producer subsidies were rigorously enforced in their day, and still are but by different techniques. The second purpose of the order is to prescribe the maximum prices to be set for the bulk of butter sold by retail. Thirdly, it provides that the maximum prices must be displayed in shops.

The subsidy on butter is now equivalent to 9p per pound at the retail level. While there is no evidence that traders have been absorbing part of the subsidy in higher margins, I hope that the House will agree that it is right to put on a formal legislative basis the requirement for the subsidy to be passed through to the consumer, for whom, after all, it is intended.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman said that there was no evidence that the order was necessary and went on to say that the whole of the subsidy had been passed on. What, then, is the point in bringing in the order?

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Gentleman will reflect that the House a little earlier debated the reports of the Public Accounts Committee. If the House were to permit the payment of subsidy without introducing careful control, we should be subject to the censure of that Committee.

Article 3 of the order gives legislative form to our intentions by controlling the margins of distributors at all stages beyond the packing stage, which is the point at which subsidy is paid. Wholesalers and retailers are required to limit their margins over subsidised butter as a whole to the levels they took during a mid-August reference period. The maximum prices specified in the table in Article 4 offer an assurance to shoppers about the top price they can be asked to pay for their butter. This is a particularly valuable assurance to consumers in more remote areas, such as my constituency. The specific prices set out in the order cover salted butter sold in rectangular packs weighing 8 ozs. to 1 lb.

The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) made some amusing remarks on this point, but what she did not sufficiently recognise was that about 90 per cent. of the butter sold to housewives comes within the description in the order. The remaining 10 per cent. or so consists mainly of unsalted butter, butter in cylindrical packs and packets of less than 8 ozs. The maximum prices are intended to reflect the levels at which the efficient small shopkeeper can sell the butter concerned and make an adequate level of profit. They are, therefore, naturally above the prices at which most housewives will be able to buy their butter.

The prices in the order were arrived at after the most extensive consultations with the interests concerned.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

Before the Minister leaves the point about shape, it may be that most butter is packed for sale in rectangles but, following the passing of the order, what is to stop packets of butter and retailers selling it in shapes other than rectangular and, therefore, evading the order and making it a joke?

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Lady was at great pains, as were a number of her hon. Friends, to ensure the greatest possible simplicity in the system. It was very much with that aim in mind that the order was framed.

I wish to turn to the question of the burden on the shopkeeper and retailer and whether there might be an incentive of the kind suggested by the hon. Lady. I suggest that there would be no incentive to evade the provisions of the order. We carried out extensive consultations with all the interests concerned before bringing forward the order, and to some extent that explains the passage of time in bringing forward the provisions. We wanted to ensure that we met as fully as possible the genuine points made to us in these discussions. Our judgment was based on the most objective information available to the Department.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

Will my hon. Friend pay due heed to what was said by the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) about the possibility of the maximum price being too high, because he seemed concerned that that might happen.

Mr. Maclennan

I shall have something to say about maximum price, and I am grateful for that intervention.

When we are controlling prices in the shops, it is right that we should let the public know what we are doing. This was recognised on a number of occasions during the passage of the Prices Bill and was a point made by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) in the Second Reading debate on that legislation.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

I am touched by the hon. Gentleman's reference to me, but I did not take part in the debate on Second Reading on that legislation, nor was I a member of that Committee, nor have I ever spoken on the subject.

Mr. Maclennan

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for attributing to him remarks which, clearly, were made by one of his hon. Friends.

The order requires retailers, therefore, to display information about the maximum prices for the butter they sell. However, we have not required the display provisions to be applied to mobile shops, such as milk floats and the vans of grocery roundsmen.

The order will expire on 31st March unless the availability of powers in Section 2 of the Act is extended. However, it is our intention to seek such an extension.

Hon. Members opposite have said that the maximum prices are too high. I have already explained that these prices are intended to be those at which the reasonably efficient small shopkeeper can continue to supply butter. They are, therefore, bound to be nearer the levels charged in the more remote areas than in the cities. Information on retail prices—

Mr. Silvester


Mr. Maclennan

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall continue since I have already given way four times. This issue can be debated for as long as he wishes.

Information on retail prices available to the Department in October and November showed that prices for butter ranged up to 17½p per half pound, and 17p was clearly, therefore, a not unrepresentative price for a number of shopkeepers at that time.

I must point out to hon. Members opposite that if the prices had been set at a lower level there would have been a real risk that a number of retailers would have ceased to sell subsidised butter. This could have led to shortages developing in some areas. It is already apparent from the Department's close contacts with enforcement bodies that some retailers are in any case having to reduce their prices because of the order. For example, prices of 19½p and 20p per half pound were noted in mid-December in shops in Gloucestershire, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury, who participated in the debate. I cannot, therefore, accept the allegation that the maximum prices have been set too high.

Mr. Michael Neubert (Romford)

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, how does he reconcile the statement he has just made, about the average prices for butter, with that made by the Department of Employment's own monitoring service on prices, which was quoted in The Guardian shopping basket for November at 11½p?

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I was speaking not of average prices but of maximum prices and the need not to set these maxima so low as to force the small shopkeeper, about whom hon. Members opposite have expressed interest during this debate, out of business. Any decision of that kind must be a matter of judgment in the light of particular market circumstances. There can be no question of any specific levels being right or wrong. Nor indeed can they be an incentive to increase prices, which was a view expressed by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester). This view ignores the margin controls in the order which ensure that prices must be held broadly at the levels existing when we formally issued our proposals for the order. This is not to say that we think that these prices will necessarily continue to be appropriate indefinitely. They are being kept under close review and will be amended whenever developments in the market seem to make this necessary.

In opening the debate, the hon. Lady the Member for Gloucester made a number of points of importance about the display provisions and other points and criticisms. I think it right that I should dwell a little on what she had to say. It has been suggested, and she said specifically, that there would be a requirement, by the time we had completed this exercise of introducing maximum price orders for subsidised products, for up to 10 such notices. However, I should like to assure the hon. Lady that this is simply not so. Indeed, during the course of our consultations we have made it plain to the trade that we do not envisage that there will be two display notices in respect of each food subsidised. There has been some misrepresentation of the position, and I suggest that on the whole it is more helpful to the trade not to misrepresent these positions nor to create unnecessary or exaggerated fears of what is involved.

We have had careful and detailed discussions over a considerable period with the trade about this mattter, and we made a number of changes to our original proposals for the display notices to minimise any additional burden on retailers. It may be that hon. Members who have participated in the debate are not as aware of the changes as are some of the people involved in the trade. This is perfectly understandable.

First, we enabled the number of separate notices to be reduced drastically to ensure that there need not be a proliferation of notices in shops. The two notices may each be combined with the corresponding notices for any other subsidised food and with any of the price range orders to be made later under Section 5 of the Prices Act.

Secondly, we enabled the notices to be kept to what is most appropriate for the individual retailer by avoiding detailed requirements about siting, lettering or colouring.

Thirdly, we made it clear that the notices did not need to be printed to conform with the provisions of the order. It is acceptable, for instance, for the more prominent display to be handwritten or for the detailed list to be in typescript.

Fourthly, we undertook to allow a minimum of six weeks for the preparation of notices and to synchronise the production date for all remaining maximum price notices.

It follows that there may not be a need for a proliferation of notices of the kind that the hon. Lady suggested and that no shopkeeper need provide on display more than two notices—one which will display most prominently the maximum prices or, in the case of butter, the three lines which have been most sold in the previous three months and which are the prices of greatest interest to the housewife who is looking to see what is the best buy.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

I am grateful for that half-explanation and for the intimation that on future orders on other subsidised foods it may not be necessary to display more than one notice. However, according to the Bread Prices Order it is necessary to display three different prices in respect of each category of bread: the maximum price in that shop, the statutory national price, and the price which the shop is charging. Then there has to be another notice showing the three most popular brands. That is only partly true of the Butter Prices Order, where only two such notices are to be displayed. But I remind the hon. Gentleman that in the Cheese Order there are 27 different kinds of cheeses subsidised. If this is to be presented in typescript, how will the housewife gain any benefit from the display of these notices?

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Lady has shifted her ground from criticism of the fact, as she alleged, that we would have proliferation of different notices to criticism of the extent of the information provided in the two notices that we are requiring. That is a wholly separate point, and it is not the point with which I was dealing.

The hon. Lady and some of her hon. Friends passed a number of strictures on the enforcement provisions of the order. I should perhaps explain to the House that in drawing up the order we sought the views of the enforcement authorities, and when the order was made we issued detailed notes for the guidance of enforcement staff. These notes have been welcomed by local authorities, which, I understand, have found them helpful.

Earlier this year we met representatives of the enforcement authorities to discuss the progress made with enforcement, and a series of similar meetings is being arranged to ensure that we are fully aware of how enforcement is proceeding. I want to emphasise, however, that it is essential to look at enforcement as a whole. We expect no difficulties in checking on the maximum prices or the display provisions which come into effect on 17th February.

The enforcement of margin control will, inevitably, be less straightforward, in part for the reasons to which the hon. Lady and some of her hon. Friends drew attention in respect of the base date, involving as it does an examination of the distributor's records. Experience will show whether this presents special problems for any particular type of shop, but I think the hon. Lady is correct in saying that it will probably be with the smaller shops that the problem will arise most acutely. However, we believe that the arrangements we have devised will enable a satisfactory level of enforcement to be achieved, taking the trade as a whole. Though there might be problems—and again the hon. Lady drew attention to them—in respect of the smaller shops, it is the small corner shops that will find themselves most effectively controlled by the maximum price regulation of the order.

I know of no major criticisms that have been made by consumers so far of the proposals, nor have our discussions with enforcement officers revealed that the whole procedure of enforcement will be seriously vitiated by the kind of difficulties to which the hon. Lady properly drew attention.

The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury has left the Chamber, so perhaps it is not necessary to deal at great length with the points that he made. However, as usual the hon. Gentleman found himself in broad disagreement with other members of his party about the need for the control of prices of subsidised foods. He was effectively answered by his hon. Friends, and, therefore, I do not need to dwell any further on that.

The hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) spoke about the burden on small shopkeepers if our requirements about display are accepted. I hope the hon. Gentleman will feel considerably reassured by what I have said about the relative simplicity of complying with these provisions. Like the hon. Gentleman and many others, I am aware of the burdens that are placed on the small shopkeeper by some of our requirements, most notably the taxation requirements, but these are not new, nor were they imposed initially by the present Government. What is more, when Tory Members introduced these provisions they did not show quite the enthusiastic support for the case which some of them have made from the Opposition benches tonight.

I should stray out of order if I were to deal with the other burdens placed on small shopkeepers. Suffice it to say that I am sensitive to their problems, and it is with that in mind that we have reduced this requirement to the most simple necessary to ensure that public money is properly directed to the benefit of the consumers for whom it has been voted by Parliament.

Mr. Silvester

When I addressed the House I asked the hon. Gentleman to say specifically how the order would help the housewife in the matter of price control. He has said that the main purpose of the order is to make sure that the full effect of the subsidy reaches the housewife. The complicated part of the order concerns notices in shops. Will the Minister address himself specifically to this point? How will the multiplicity of notices and the bureaucracy that goes with it ensure that the subsidy gets to the housewife?

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Gentleman is confusing two quite disparate things. The margin control provisions are intended to ensure that the money goes to the benefit of the consumer. In the more prominent notice which, under the Butter Prices Order, will list the prices of the three most sold butters in the previous months, the display provisions are required to demonstrate to the housewife the consequence of the consumer subsidy. There would seem to be no complication at all. It is a simple piece of information which will be required to be displayed in the informal manner that I have described. Therefore, there will be no difficulty of the kind envisaged by the hon. Gentleman.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) was right to point out that there has been criticism that the powers contained in the Prices Act 1974 have not yet been widely invoked and that there is at least as much criticism of this factor as there is of the limited number of cases in which we have invoked these powers. I shall certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend said. I know that it represents the view of a substantial number of people outside this House and of a great number of my hon. Friends.

The hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) opposed the order for the same reason as other hon. Gentlemen opposite, in that he considers that it would add to the burdens of small shopkeepers. I hope that I have now reassured him on this matter. The hon. and learned Gentleman will realise that the cost will be absolutely minimal in view of the informality of the requirement.

Mr. Mayhew

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the cost is not simply that of purchasing and replacing these notices, but of lost shell space to the shopkeeper. If these and other measures are passed, the shopkeeper will be required to have notices for cheese, tea, flour, butter and bread. For each shelf foot he reckons to make £1 to £1.50 profit per week. He will lose about 50p a week for each shelf foot taken up by these wretched notices.

Mr. Maclennan

I wish that the hon. Gentleman had heard the earlier part of my speech. I made it plain that there would be a requirement for only two notices under these maximum price orders and that all subsequent information could be attached to the same two notices. Therefore, the problem of extra shelf space does not arise.

I hope that it will be appreciated and agreed generally that the order ensures that the subsidy will reach the consumer through the margin control provisions and that it is, therefore, an important measure of financial control. I think that the order provides a welcome assurance to shoppers that they need not pay more for butter than the maximum prices. It will enable shoppers everywhere to know what the Government are doing to control the prices of subsidised food and will provide them with information about maximum prices. I think that it takes fully into account the views expressed to us during the consultations that we have had and that it has regard to the circumstances of the trade and its profitability. This is a fair, useful and necessary measure. I therefore ask the House to reject the Prayer.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

We have had a useful debate and a lamentable reply from the Minister. He has completely failed to meet a substantial number of the points raised. He has derived very little succour from his own side. Except for a genial piece of knockabout by the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts), there was a total lack of interest on the Government side. The Government should go away and think very hard about these issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) made a speech of brilliance and authority. I know that she played a dominant part in the Committee debates which lie behind the order, whereas, as I said, I was not on the Committee. My hon. Friend's points and those made by others deserved a much better answer than we have heard tonight.

What we have been talking about essentially was the sheer nonsense of the whole thing, and this has come through in what we have heard. Whether or not this mass of information can be displayed in two or three notices is highly questionable. It is difficult to imagine how one keeps the large type and the conspicuous display of notices which are liable constantly to have additions made to them. It is not as if there will be one fixed notice which stands for all time. We shall find, I think, that the picture that the Minister has drawn is thoroughly complacent.

The hon. Gentleman showed a different sort of complacency when he talked about the difficulty of producing records. He at least acknowledged that this difficulty existed, but he said airily that we should have to wait and see what happened. That will be no consolation to the shopkeepers who have to go through the difficulty, and perhaps even the anguish, of trying to track down records, many of which they will not have. They are likely to become very worried by the order, which serves no purpose.

Meaningful enforcement is likely to be a much greater problem than the Minister has acknowledged. The order shows that the Government are totally out of touch with what goes on in the ordinary shops. It would be hard to imagine a purer piece of 1984-ism, of bureaucracy gone mad, than this provision.

As my hon. Friend said, we accept that with subsidies there must be price controls. Not all my hon. Friends agree, but we believe that when one is trying to keep prices down it is not unreasonable to provide the controls to make that possible. There is, however, an element of farce in the provisions about putting up the notices.

For reasons which the Minister knows, I shall not advise my hon. Friends to support the Prayer in the Division Lobby, but I earnestly say to the Government that they must rethink this policy and not bring forward this sort of nonsense in future.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 22, Noes 136.

Division No. 42.] AYES [9.4 p.m.
Budgen, Nick Lawrence, Ivan Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)
Cormack, Patrick Marten, Neil Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch
Crowder, F. P. Mates, Michael Shepherd, Colin
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Mawby, Ray Skeet, T. H. H.
Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Mayhew, Patrick
Hurd, Douglas Meyer, Sir Anthony TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Jessel, Toby Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove) Mr. Peter Mills and
Kaberry, Sir Donald Neave, Airey Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop.
Knight, Mrs Jill Page, John (Harrow West)
Allaun, Frank Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Hoyle, Douglas (Nelson)
Armstrong, Ernest Dempsey, James Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey)
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Doig, Peter Hughes, Mark (Durham)
Barnett, Joel (Heywood) Dormand, J. D. Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill)
Bates, Alf Duffy, A. E. P. Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Dunlop, John John, Brynmor
Bidwell, Sydney Dunn, James A. Johnson, Walter (Derby S)
Blenkinsop, Arthur Dunnett, Jack Jones, Alec (Rhondda)
Booth, Albert Eadie, Alex Jones, Barry (East Flint)
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Judd, Frank
Bray, Dr Jeremy Ellis, Tom (Wrexham) Kinnock Neil
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Evans, John (Newton) Lambie, David
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Ewing, Harry (Stirling) Lamond, James
Buchanan, Richard Faulds, Andrew Latham, Arthur (Paddington)
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Flannery, Martin Leadbitter, Ted
Campbell, Ian Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)
Carmichael, Neil Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Loyden, Eddie
Castle, Rt Hon Barbara George, Bruce Luard, Evan
Clemitson, Ivor Golding, John McElhone, Frank
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Graham, Ted MacFarquhar, Roderick
Coleman, Donald Grocott, Bruce McGuire, Michael (Ince)
Concannon, J. D. Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Mackenzie, Gregor
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Maclennan, Robert
Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill) Harper, Joseph McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)
Cryer, Bob Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) McNamara, Kevin
Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Hatton, Frank Madden, Max
Dalyell, Tam Hooley, Frank Magee, Bryan
Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock) Tierney, Sydney
Mason, Rt Hon Roy Roderick, Caerwyn Tomlinson, John
Mallish, Rt Hon Robert Rodgers, George (Chorley) Torney, Tom
Mendelson, John Rooker, J. W. Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Mikardo, Ian Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock) Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Millan, Bruce Rowlands, Ted Ward, Michael
Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride) Sandelson, Neville Watkins, David
Mitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen) Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-u-Lyne) Weetch, Ken
Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Short, Rt Hon E. (Newcastle C) White, Frank R. (Bury)
Murray, Ronald King Sillars, James White, James (Pollok)
Noble, Mike Skinner, Dennis Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Oakes, Gordon Small, William Wise, Mrs Audrey
Ovenden, John Smith, John (N Lanarkshire) Woodall, Alec
Owen, Dr David Snaps, Peter Woof, Robert
Parker, John Spearing, Nigel Wrigglesworth, Ian
Perry, Ernest Spriggs, Leslie
Price, William (Rugby) Stott, Roger TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Radice, Giles Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W) Mr. Laurie Pavitt and
Reid, George Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW) Mr. Thomas Cox.
Richardson, Miss Jo Thorne, Stan (Preston South)

Question accordingly negatived.

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