HC Deb 20 January 1976 vol 903 cc1281-99

10.42 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. Alan Williams)

I beg to move: That the Restrictive Trade Practices (Services) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 9th December, be approved. It seems to be the lot of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) and myself to command the peak viewing hours in the House. I gather from the attentive audience behind the hon. Lady that we can expect some critical but, I trust, constructive interventions. I note that the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) can hardly contain himself. That bodes ill for our hopes of finishing before our due hour and a half.

As hon. Members will appreciate, the Order requires the registration of restrictive agreements in the supply or acquisition of all services except those covered by Schedule 4 of the Fair Trading Act, a subject about which the least said the better, and those covered in the schedule to the Order.

The Order does not prohibit those agreements but it brings them into the open, subjecting them to public examina- tion and critical court supervision and scrutiny where that appears appropriate. That includes not only agreements between firms and between individuals but the recommendations of associations to their members. It will be for the Restrictive Practices Court to give decisions. It is not for us to decide which agreements are in or against the public interest. The court has the power, the authority and the knowledge that is necessary.

It is interesting to consider the results of similar measures introduced in relation to the supply and the acquisition of goods when registration was required and 3,000 agreements were registered. Of those 3,000 agreements, a mere 37 were contested in court. Of the 37, 11 were eventually decided as not being against the public interest. It is interesting that only one in 300 of the agreements registered eventually came through the procedure as not being against the public interest. All the rest were abandoned. We must accept that that stage of the operation was very much in the public interest and achieved a great deal for the consumer. Naturally, we hope that we shall have similar success at this stage.

The process should be explained to the House, although I am sure that most hon. Members are familiar with it. The Order will come into force on 22nd March. Existing agreements, written or oral, must be abandoned or registered by 21st June. Within that time span, registration is required if the agreement has not been cancelled or abandoned. New agreements not already in existence must be registered within three months of being made, or if restrictions would apply in less than three months from the time they are made they must be registered prior to the date when the restrictions would apply.

The Director General of Fair Trading has a duty to refer all these agreements to the court unless he sees fit, under Section 9(2) of the Restrictive Trade Practices Act 1968, to make representations to the Secretary of State that the agreements are, in his opinion, insignificant. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agrees with him, she can direct that the agreements need not go before the court. In some instances agreements which conceivably would go before the court may, with modification, after discussion with the Director General, be subject to the Section 9(2) procedure and could conceivably escape the court procedure.

For those who face court scrutiny, there are the established gateways under the old and new Acts against which they can plead their case. I do not need to go into the matter at this stage, but if hon. Members wish me to deal with the point in my reply I shall be happy to do so. Those established gateways can be claimed on behalf of those entering into agreements in an attempt to persuade the court that they are not operating against the public interest.

While the court is considering any registered agreement, the agreement stays in force until the court decides against it. Failure to register makes the agreement void and lays the people involved in the agreement open to action for damages as a result of an unlawful agreement. After the court has decided against it, if it should do so, to continue to operate the agreement, whether overtly or covertly, would be contempt of court, with all the drastic penalties that could ensue against the individual concerned.

Perhaps I may be allowed to explain briefly the steps of the Order, in case any question arises as to the way in which it has been arrived at. In August 1974 we published a copy of our intention to make an Order, and we are required to allow 28 days for the making of repre- sentations. Various groups sought exemptions. It is astonishing how many people find virtue in their own restrictive practices.

Three basic reasons were put forward for seeking exemption. The first was that if the Order were to be introduced it would be a fundamental interference with the freedom to trade. It is open to question whether it is freedom to trade or freedom to rig, but it was an argument which I found to be totally unacceptable and which I immediately rejected. Parliament has already decided that the legislation should be extended. This is surely the wrong time at which to base an argument on grounds of fundamental interference.

The second argument put forward was that the agreements concerned were meritorious in their own right and in the public interest. No doubt the Jockey Club and the bookmakers were singularly convinced of the merit of their agreements. It may be that after scrutiny by the court they will be vindicated in their confidence. It seems that the purpose of the court is to decide whether an agreement is meritorious. It is not for the Secretary of State or for me to do that. We would be pre-empting the rôle of the court by doing so. Those who feel that their agreements are so evidently of merit and to the benefit of the public will have ample opportunity to expose their virtue before the court and have it publicly acclaimed, should that be the appropriate consequence.

There were those who argued that their agreements were already adequately controlled because of existing legislation and procedures or that there were problems in relation to international jurisdiction. The hon. Lady will know that her party, like mine, recognises the difficulties for shipping and so on in this regard. This argument was accepted for the kinds of agreements listed in the Explanatory Note.

The Office of Fair Trading will be issuing notes of guidance. We appreciate that, while those of us who have been following the Fair Trading Act and its ramifications, modifications and consequences over the years may realise what is involved, it is not fair to expect that commerce generally should be familiar with the processes. The Office of Fair Trading will therefore be producing an introductory guide to registration. It is ready to give assistance, and is doing so in some instances, to those who wish to know whether their agreements come within the jurisdiction of the Order and to those who want to know whether any amendment of their agreements would be acceptable. Those who want advice from the Office of Fair Trading should discuss the matter with the London or Edinburgh offices.

I believe, and I hope the House will accept, that this will bring necessary scrutiny and control to an important sector of commerce which so far has escaped such scrutiny—namely, services. I commend the Order to the House.

10.52 p.m.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)

This Order marks an auspicious occasion—one to which I am surprised the Minister did not refer—in that it is the first to be laid under the Fair Trading Act, itself the most significant and comprehensive piece of legislation for the protection of consumers enacted this decade—introduced, of course, by the last Conservative Government.

The Order, as explained so lucidly by the Minister, is intended to regulate restrictive agreements in the provision of services. I find a certain irony in the Government's new-found enthusiasm for the objectives of this measure as described by one of their departmental officials in The Times on 10th December 1975 when he said that it was: to encourage companies to be more competitive and, hopefully, for this to be reflected in their prices. If the Government are interested in encouraging competition, they could have fooled me.

All they have done since they came to power has been massively to erode competition, with one nationalisation measure after another, at a time when consumers are having to pay through the nose for nationalised goods and services. This is due as much as anything else to the fact that such industries are not subject to competition and apparently are so vulnerable that, at the very thought of it, the Post Office, for instance, found it necessary to prevent a vicar in a little Cotswolds village from delivering letters for one of his pensioner parishioners who could not afford the postal rates.

Not only have the Government discouraged competition by the introduction of nationalisation measures, but they have encouraged restrictive labour practices through the Employment Protection Bill and measures such as the Dock Labour Scheme. This debate is about competition. The Dock Labour Scheme will encourage restrictive labour practices that will have the effect of raising prices. This Order is meant to prevent restrictive practices from raising prices. If the Government are converted—even if it is only a small conversion—to the idea of competition, we on the Conservative side are happy to welcome their conversion.

I never cease to be surprised by the extent to which the Minister has been tamed by ministerial responsibilities. We observe his timorousness now as Minister of State, but we remember the columns of Committee reports and the columns of the Official Report that he filled with his furious indignation during our deliberations on the Fair Trading Act when discussing the exclusions of Schedule 4. I now find that, after the Government have been in power for two years, Schedule 4 of the Fair Trading Act has not been repealed, and the Order tonight comes with exactly the exclusions to which the Minister took such great objection when in opposition.

However, I agree with everything the Minister has said about the need for the introduction of rules of this nature, relating for the first time to the supply of services, a respect in which consumers lack protection in a number of ways. It is extremely disappointing that the Minister is not able in this Session to introduce legislation to deal with exclusion clauses in the provision of services to consumers.

It is positively scandalous that the Minister's Department has been deprived of legislative time to such an extent that, rather pathetically, the Minister has had to ask one of his hon. Friends to introduce his own fireworks safety regulations.

Mr. Alan Williams

When the Law Commissioners reported on exclusion clauses in relation to goods, not only did the Conservative Government not introduce the consequential legislation in that Session, but they did not do it in the following Session, nor in the one after that. It took them several years to get round to it.

Mrs. Oppenheim

The Conservative Government got round to it. They introduced it and it was enacted, and consumers are now benefiting from it. I wonder whether during the lifetime of this Labour Government we shall have similar legislation concerning the exclusion clauses in the provision of services. In one way I hope that we do and in another I hope that we do not.

I return to the objectives of the Order. A number of the restrictive agreements that it should be preventing are so far only suspected. They cannot possibly come to light until agreements are registered. Others are not merely suspected but only too well known, as the Minister of State has rightly said.

My own first foray in to the realms of consumer protection was many years ago when I raised with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—who at that time was my Member of Parliament—the subject of restrictive agreements among London dairies, because in London, and only in London, customers cannot choose the dairy which is to deliver their milk. The reason, I was told, is that there was an agreement between the two major dairies not to encroach on [...]ch other's areas. This does not apply to the Co-op. I am talking about the two major dairies in London.

I put it to one of the dairies at the time that, as its products were so much more popular and it was delivering in the next road to me, I did not see why, if it delivered in my road, it should not take over the whole road. I was told that there was an agreement concerning encroachment. I hope, therefore, that, as the delivery of milk is a service, this sort of agreement will be scrutinised. Perhaps the Minister of State would like to deal with that.

The Minister has referred to the number of people who have expressed concern about the Order. Like him, I have received some of these expressions of concern—for example, from estate agents who were worried that the provisions might militate unfairly against them and encourage cut-price operations, which could lead to failures similar to those seen in the insurance business. However, because the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection has issued a consultative document—with some recommendations which, I hope, will be approved and introduced—there should be a safeguard. I hope that it will mean that any fears will be allayed for the provisions in that document are likely to be extremely helpful.

As the Minister knows, I have expressed some concern to him that an accompanying order under Section 108 of the Fair Trading Act regulating information agreements has not been introduced with this. The Minister was good enough to get his Department to write to me about this subject. However, when we debated the matter in Committee on the Fair Trading Bill, it was accepted that orders under these two sections should be introduced in tandem, as it were. That was as recently as 1973. It was accepted that Sections 107 and 108 should go hand in hand and that complementary orders should be made. There was no question then, five years after the Restrictive Trade Practices Act 1968, of there still being a problem with regard to information agreements in the supply of services.

The Minister will also recall that when powers were taken under the Restrictive Trade Practices Act 1968 to regulate information agreements, his right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) said: … information agreements, particularly relating to prices, are being used to circumvent the object of the 1956 Act, and often replace agreements which have themselves been swept away by the Act. The parties can evade the Act in this way because the definition of a registrable agreement is not wide enough to include all information agreements which can be so drawn as to produce the same effect as common price agreements. Following that, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Dell) said: We decided that we must have power to call up information agreements other than those covering prices because there is a danger—and it is a danger against which we have a right to safeguard ourselves—that the other kinds of information agreements could, in certain circumstances, be a cover for agreements relating to prices."—[Official Report, 30th April 1968; Vol. 763, cc. 1009–46.] That is equally true in this case. Just such a loophole exists which could destroy the objectives of this Order.

The Minister's Department informed me, for example, that there was no evidence to suggest that information agreements in this sector existed in any quantity. Obviously not, because some of the practices that this measure will invalidate will come to light only when agreements are registered. Therefore it is impossible to know whether there is evidence at the moment on information agreements.

Furthermore, the Department's explanation went on to saY that when the restrictive practices legislation of 1968 was introduced, there was a strong suspicion that such agreements were being used as substitutes for restrictive agreements. But I submit that it was much more than a strong suspicion, because there were two successful prosecutions under the order subsequently laid to regulate information agreements in the supply of goods. One was to do with electricity meters and the other with cement manufacturing companies. This is much more than a suspicion.

I accept that not all information agreements are contrary to the public interest. But if information agreements are permitted in the supply of services when they have been banned in the supply of goods, agreements contrary to the public interest, contrary to the spirit of this measure, and certainly contrary to the intentions of both the restrictive practices legislation and the Fair Trading Act will come outside the scope of the Office of Fair Trading, and I cannot think that that will be in the interest of the consumer.

I hope that the Minister will watch the situation carefully and, if necessary, lay the relevant order. However, I am not filled with optimism about that prospect. It has taken more than 12 years to get the first of the restrictive practices legislation before the House on the supply of services. I hope that it will not take another 12 years for the hon. Gentleman to review the situation. As the Government have already shown themselves to be so parsimonious over the allocation of time to the hon. Gentleman's Department, I hope that it will not be another 24 years before we get such an order before us.

However, I do not wish to appear churlish or lacking in enthusiasm in my welcome to a measure which has the potential to be of importance to the con- sumer. I suppose that the proverbial half a loaf is better than none. I am sure that all hon. Members will wish to join in welcoming a measure that should eventually lead to lower charges than would otherwise be made and to a number of practices that are certainly not in the interests of the consumer being prevented.

11.5 p.m.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

I am sure that no one would accuse the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) of being churlish. Her welcome was as generous as one would have expected from her, having regard to her activities in these matters. Her sense of frustration is to an extent shared on my side of the House.

We welcome what is in the Order and we pay wann tribute to the present Administration for having produced the first order under what was about the only worthwhile statute produced by the last Administration. The order contains useful material, but perhaps I should briefly indicate one or two other matters not contained in it so that people should be warned not to expect too much from it.

It deals with the provision of services. There is the all too common belief that contracts of service have anything in common with contracts for the provision of services. For example, a non-poaching agreement between competing companies, that is, an agreement not to take on members of the staff of the other company, is not covered. Also not covered is the agreement by which one company will not take on workers who leave the service of the other, even though by that time they will have left that company's employment. We hear a good deal about deliberate poaching of other companies' employees and about agreements which are sub rosa.

I hope that the Minister is right to say that the Order subjects agreements that are covered to open public scrutiny where appropriate. Like the hon. Lady, I fear to some extent that too many agreements will not be laid open to public scrutiny, because those who make them will take great care to avoid that. They will stick to oral agreements and avoid committing anything to writing or other documentation. That is no reason for not having the Order, but it leads to my second warning that we must not expect too much from the Order in its present form.

The Order covers the terms or conditions on or subject to which designated services are to be supplied or obtained". When the hon. Lady said that exclusion clauses were not covered, I am sure that she intended to say "individual exclusion clauses", because collective exclusion clauses are. The situation will be covered in which interests make agreements that they will among themselves include exclusion clauses in all the various contracts they make. They are comparatively rare, however. Far more common are those which are not covered by the Order and which I hope will be dealt with shortly, one way or the other, and those are the individual exclusion clauses. These are employed by travel agents, by furniture removers, by launderers and dry cleaners. They are used by everyone from the cleaners of nappies at the birth to the carriers of the coffin at the funeral. All those supplying any sort of service may still exclude the rights of the consumer by one of these clauses.

Happily, the Director General of Fair Trading is to be congratulated on the efforts that he and his team are making. They are doing a first-class job carefully and cautiously, and, although some of us would wish for more vigour, we must recognise that they are starting to get results. For example, National Car Parks have agreed voluntarily to remove those disgraceful and highly misleading exclusion clauses which appear on notices on walls and on the tickets saying that people park at their own risk and responsibility. I trust that all others in that business will follow its example, without the necessity for legislation or orders.

However, this is only a beginning. We have an Order which we should be pleased to have. Subject to the warning that it does not cover contracts of service and those agreements which are, and will remain, sub rosa, and subject to the anguished hope that more will be done swiftly to implement the recommendations of the Law Commission, however unsatisfactory some of them may be, in connection with individual exclusion clauses, I extend a cordial Welcom to the Order.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I join those who have welcomed the Order. I am amazed that we have it now; I thought that it had already been made. I must have failed to do my parliamentary duties.

I remember writing to all the professions when I was in charge of these matters in the Department of Trade and Industry asking them whether they were doing wrong, so that we could tell them to stop. We sent hundreds of letters and the most irate answers came back, after long delays, answers from which it was clear that all services should be included in the scope of the restrictive trade practices legislation. I was pleased to see the powers included in the Bill, even though I was not destined to take it through the House.

It is astonishing to realise that only now has the Order been laid. I welcome it, because I am certain that of all the things the present Government have done since February 1974, this is the only one which could conceivably have the effect of reducing prices. They have produced much legislation which is likely to put prices up. It is a pity that so few hon. Members are here to welcome the one conversion towards understanding the causes of high prices which the Government have chosen to enact. They are to be congratulated on it.

It is a pleasure to me to be able to congratulate the Government on a contribution to reducing inflation. I have for so long wished to be able to say something favourable that tonight is a happy and special occasion for me. I am extremely pleased to see the Order. but I must make a few comments.

It is not what is in the Order but what is not in it that worries me. I am surprised by the exclusions. I know that the Minister can say that many of them are in the Act and not in the Order. That is a fair point, but I must disclaim responsibility, because I was not a member of the Administration which introduced the Act. [Laughter.] The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) has no right to a laugh, because he is excluded. Why is the legal profession not subjected to the rigours of competition?

I often heard from Labour Members when they were in opposition that barristers were all in a closed shop, that solicitors had their ring, and that the legal profession was too expensive and needed a dose of competition. I became convinced by their arguments, having always respected lawyers and thought of them as people of above the ordinary aspirations of us ordinary mortals. I began to realise that maybe it would be healthy to write to three or four barristers and ask for tenders for defending oneself, or ask solicitors to put in quotations for looking after one's affairs or doing one's legal business. But we are not allowed to do that. The hon. and learned Gentleman should not laugh, because he has got away with it scot free in his profession. I do not see why he should. I want to hear what plans the Government have for extending this legislation to lawyers and perhaps to estate agents, architects, surveyors and all sorts of other professions.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. I have allowed the hon. Member to develop his argument, but I must now rule him out of order. He is dealing with something not covered by the Order. He is dealing with questions relating to other Acts.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West is relieved indeed to hear your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and of course I accept it.

The schedule to the Order contains a whole list of other exclusions which, I understand, it would be in order for me to discuss.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I thought the hon. Member had concluded on a very nice note when he welcomed the Order. I am surprised that he is continuing.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful for your encouragement, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am glad that you liked the first part of my speech. I hope you will equally like the second part on which I have only just started.

One can always tell the friends of the Government by seeing who is excluded from their stricter legislation. I wonder why the Order excludes all public industries, including the Post Office, air, sea and land transport, and the Treasury.

If anybody ought to be in the Order, it is the Treasury. All the excluded institutions could do with a good dose of competition, and none more than the Post Office.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West spoke about exclusion clauses. The worst exclusion clause of all is that operated by the Post Office, which takes no responsibility for delivering letters, seeing that letters are returned if they are not delivered, or ensuring that compensation is paid if letters are lost. Yet we are told that the cost of posting a first-class letter is going up to 10½p. About 3 per cent. of my constituents' letters never reach me and 3 per cent. of my replies never get back to them. This is an area in which a little competition might do a bit of good.

Let us have lots of Post Offices. Why is the Post Office given exemption under the Order? It is the most restrictive organisation. Why should the Gloucestershire vicar to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) referred not be allowed to deliver Christmas cards in his parish? Why should people not be allowed to pay others to deliver their letters?

This is a serious state of affairs. I am not laughing any more. The postal system does not work in this country. The Post Office fails to deliver letters and it is losing £350 million a year. We should remove the Post Office from the list of exemptions and let other people have a go. The Director General of Fair Trading could also look at what restrictive agreements in the Post Office are doing to the service. People are fed up with the nationalised post service. They would far rather have the Gloucestershire vicar than Sir William Ryland and his merry men. At least the vicar might deliver the letters. Many people in the City of London would like their own private delivery services. It is the failure of the Government to exclude the Post Office from legislation like this that is standing in their way.

I believe that the Order is to be welcomed, but we have to take on board one further point. Not only do the professions have to be included, but the idea that the State, by taking unto itself a monopoly, is somehow immune from the abuses of monopoly and can safely be entrusted to discharge that monopoly unchallenged must go. Whatever we think about private or public ownership, it is the monopoly element in the State provision of gas, electricity, postal services, railways and so on which is offensive and a failure.

If the State not only owns an industry but is able to subsidise it to any extent it chooses, it cannot demand a monopoly as well. That is having one's cake and eating it, and it is resulting in the poorest services the country has ever known. The moral for the Government is that they should look to their own friends, look at the mote in their own eyes before they start complaining about the beams in other people's.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take on board that it is time to break up the public sector monopolies. Monopolies in this country are no longer to be found in the private sector or in the professions—or, at least, only to a small extent—but in the monstrous creations of Herbert Morrison and others who believed that, because a monopoly was nationalised, it was immune from public scrutiny.

11.22 p.m.

Mr. Alan Williams

The congratulations proffered by the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) are the only cause I have had in the debate for doubting whether I am doing the right thing. But it seems that on occasions even he will agree with me on certain matters.

However, I am surprised by the change in the hon. Gentleman's approach. A short while ago, in Committee discussing legislation on safety matters, he talked about our being over-governed. Tonight he wants even more government than I am bringing in this Order. Perhaps he is becoming one of the leading interventionists of his party. No doubt the transformation will delight his leaders.

He was convinced by our arguments about lawyers when we were in opposition, and I am delighted to have heard him say so. The tragedy was that when we had the relevant schedule struck out of the Fair Trading Bill, his enthusiasm and conviction did not carry him along with us, with the result that the then Government were able to re-insert the schedule.

The hon. Gentleman asked who were the friends of the Government. Apparently, in his view anyone excluded from the Order is a friend of the Government. It seems that friends of the Government are probably front organisations for wicked Socialism. Among them we find the insurance companies, building societies and the City Take-over Panel—and we know what leading proponents of Socialism and public enterprise they are.

But the hon. Gentleman is wrong about the Post Office. The Post Office is covered in so far as it enters into restrictive agreement with any other party. It is covered as anyone else is covered in the same sort of situation. If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about monopoly, that is way beyond the scope of the Order.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

But does not the hon. Gentleman accept that the Post Office has a restrictive agreement between itself and the Government not to allow any competition in its operations?

Mr. Williams

It is late in the evening and I am sure that we shall forgive the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) a point like that at this stage. I am sure that she would not want it to be subjected to a particularly close analysis.

The hon. Lady said that she did not want to be churlish. She said it at the end of her speech and it came as some surprise to me. Her enthusiasm would have curdled most of the milk on the London milk floats of which she complained.

When the hon. Member for Gloucester began her speech rather optimistically I thought that she was about to refer to the Order. However, I then realised that she was more intent on getting perhaps a couple of paragraphs in the Press than on any issue. That is not a target that I would in any way disdain. I well recollect my own activities when I was in opposition.

The hon. Lady was quick to take credit on behalf of the Conservative Party for the Fair Trading Act. However, she failed to point out that that legislation was introduced in sackcloth and ashes as penance for the assassination of the Consumer Council and because of pressure from the consumers, who were infuriated by the short-sightedness of that particularly penny-pinching activity on the part of a previous Government.

The hon. Lady accused me of being tamed and timorous. I am sorry that my apparent excesses of previous years have waned somewhat. I suppose that it must be a matter of advancing age. But let it be remembered that in the end I introduced the Order, which the Conservative Party failed to produce. Therefore, I trust that any allegation of timorousness that she levels at me she will level even more forcefully against her own party.

The hon. Lady complained that she was disappointed that exclusion clauses were not covered by the order. However, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) rightly pointed out, collective exclusion clauses are and would be registrable.

I know that that was not what the hon. Lady was primarily talking about. She was talking about the Law Commission Report. She will be aware that consultation started almost immediately on the exclusion clause recommendations of the Law Commission. However, her own Government took several years from the stage of receiving a report to actually producing legislation in the form of the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Act.

The hon. Lady referred to estate agents. For a moment I thought that she would slip into the role of protector of estate agents, but at the last moment her political corns started to nag her, she drew back her toes and decided that that matter would best be left to someone else. In this instance her political judgment was right.

I am glad that the hon. Lady felt a certain enthusiasm for the consultative document that I have produced for control of estate agents. I suppose that that is another example of my timorousness in tackling problems with which her own party flatly refused to deal.

The hon. Lady regretted that information agreements were not covered. One of the problems of being in opposition is that one cannot say that what the Government are doing is right. Therefore, one has either to state that it is wrong—she dare not saY that about this particular item—or that it does not go far enough. I am delighted that when referring to Section 108 the hon. Lady took the opportunity to say that it did not go far enough. I assure her that I discussed this very point with the Director General of Fair Trading, who informed me that he was not yet clear what the initial flow of work would be in June, when registration begins, and that he would not at this stage welcome the information agreement order which the hon. Lady apparently wants, because he feels that administratively he could not cope with it.

I see that the hon. Lady is raising her eyebrows. I remind her that on many occasions she has enthusiastically urged the Government to cut public sector manpower and public expenditure. Therefore, I trust that this modest recognition of the need to contain public service manpower and, in so far as it appears necessary, to phase the introduction of the restrictive agreements and the information agreements orders as separate items will be welcome to the hon. Lady.

Mr. Ridley

If all these Government services and industries were not included in the exclusions, surely we should reduce manpower by much more. Cannot the hon. Gentleman see the difference between promoting competition in the private sector, which has beneficial results, and at the same time reducing manpower in the Government's services, which are totally excluded from competition? That is where the economy is to be found.

Mr. Williams

On another occasion I shall be delighted to hear how the hon. Gentleman would introduce competition in the domestic supply of gas through the same or parallel mains and in the domestic supply of electricity through the same or parallel mains. This is not the appropriate time. However, I suspect that if the hon. Gentleman does that, he will achieve a technological feat which no one has yet equalled in the consideration of the activities of the nationalised sector.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's conversion to the thought of perhaps restricting Government expenditure. But as there are two separate statutory consultative procedures under the two orders, would it not have saved both time and manpower if these procedures had taken place at the same time?

Mr. Williams

No, because we should have had to take on extra people to deal with the extra agreements coming forward. The hon. Lady must make up her mind. I shall be delighted to hear from her when she has made up her mind. No doubt as the Opposition spokesman she will let us know her priority. I find it difficult to keep pace with the capriciousness of change in the priority of policies that the hon. Lady advocates from the Opposition Front Bench.

Having had this amicable, constructive and not terribly relevant debate, I commend the Order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Restrictive Trade Practices (Services) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 9th December, be approved.