HC Deb 21 June 1977 vol 933 cc1578-89
Mr. Richard Wainwright

I beg to move Amendment No. 81, in page 31, line 32, at end insert 'and at the end of the definition of "charge" there shall be inserted the words "and also includes a charge for a holiday caravan licence ". (1A) After subsection (1) of the said section 21 there shall be inserted the following subsection— (1A) In the definition of 'charge' in subsection (1) above 'holiday caravan licence' means a licence to put on any land a caravan (within the meaning of Part I of the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 as amended by the Caravan Sites Act 1968) for use for the purpose of holidays in a case where washing facilities or lavatories are provided or a supply of water, electricity or gas is provided, otherwise than by the licensee, for use in connection with the caravan; and any reference in section 6 of this Act to performing services shall be construed as including a reference to giving such a licence."'. This amendment concerns holiday caravans. I emphasise that it does not relate to main homes which happen to be in mobile form because they are covered by the Mobile Homes Act 1975.

Holiday caravans up to the present have never been the subject of a firmly established and legally impregnable price control. People usually have only very short-term agreements. I am told that holiday caravan agreements with landlords are rarely of a duration of more than 12 months. Hitherto, such people have been at a considerable disadvantage if they have come up against a landlord who is somewhat grasping, or who has a motive in selling a new caravan on his site.

I am advised that in most choice coastal places and beauty spots the demand for holiday caravans greatly exceeds the supply of sites. There are all the elements of exposing such holiday-makers to considerable risks of extortionate charges, although there are many good and considerate landlords.

Where a caravan owner keeps his caravan on somebody else's land he is unlikely to have security of tenure. Furthermore, he is not protected against any increase in site fees. This may not matter quite so much if it is a light caravan which can easily be moved, but a heavier caravan may not be very easy to tow away. Indeed, I suspect that some caravans reach a condition where it would probably be disastrous to tow them away. They are basically holiday homes and for a large part of the year and often permanently they are kept on the special caravan sites which are the subject of this amendment.

The owners of such caravans are in a very weak position. When they are threatened with increased charges, it is difficult for them to move a heavy caravan to an alternative site. I emphasise that those people are given no protection under the Rent Act or from the Mobile Homes Act 1975. There are many complaints—a number of them directed at the Price Commission—about unreasonable increases in site charges, and I commend the idea that owners of holiday caravans who run the risk of such abuses should be given a degree of protection.

I wish to refer to one particular danger. Apparently, the landlords of caravan sites are increasingly involved in the trade of selling new caravans. There is a great temptation for them to get rid of an. existing tenant on a site if that tenant is not disposed to buy a new caravan from that landlord. Landlords tend to bring in somebody who will buy a new caravan.

We believe that in view of these risky circumstances, there should be price control not over the rents, because that is not possible, but over the combined licence fees that are payable for the licence to park caravans, plus charges for water, electricity, drainage and other basic amenities. Where there is a licence fee of this kind it will, if this amendment is agreed to, be brought under the control of the Price Commission.

Having outlined the worthy purposes of the amendment, I commend it to the House.

Mr. Loyden

I am grateful to the lion. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) for moving this amendment. I know that both the Minister of State and the Secretary of State have given a great deal of attention to this problem in the recent past.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important question for discussion. A year or so ago hon. Members were inundated with letters from constituents who faced the situation outlined by the hon. Member for Colne Valley. Many working-class people in my constituency—and I am sure in the constituencies of other hon. Members—sought, many years ago, to live in a caravan on a site because that gave them an opportunity of getting away from, in many cases, a desperately bad environment to the countryside and because it enabled them to enjoy the countryside that they could not enjoy in their home environment. The Government should have paid attention to this long since.

These people, by the process that has been outlined by the hon. Member for Colne Valley, have been gradually deprived of this amenity which has become popular among those living in many urban conurbations. I fully support the argument that was put by the hon. Member for Colne Valley, although I know full well that much sympathy lies with the Minister and the Secretary of State on the matter.

Mr. Maclennan

On behalf of the Government I welcome the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright). This has been an area of considerable legal obscurity and the matter has created great public concern. The Government and individual hon. Members have increasingly received complaints about increases in site charges for holiday caravans. It is right to ensure that the Price Commission's powers in this field are protected from challenge. It is important to make clear that the amendment does not seek to bring rents or leases under control but refers to the site charge, which covers the use of land and ancillary services. Such charges should be subject to the control of the Price Commission. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) and to the hon. Member for Colne Valley, and I recommend the House to accept the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

8.23 p.m.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

At the conclusion of 28 hours of debate in the House I must start by paying tribute to all the services of the House which have dealt splendidly with what has proved to be this long sitting.

I also pay tribute to both Front Benches. Spokesmen on both Front Benches have not had any sleep at all since the proceedings started. I also pay tribute particularly to those of my hon. Friends who have served on the Front Bench on both an Mad hoc and a permament basis for the absolutely magnificent debates in which they have taken part. I am extremely grateful to them. I shall come back to that in a moment.

I want to deal at the outset with the falsehood that we have heard repeated ad nauseam by the Labour Party. It is that because we may be opposed to the Bill we are automatically in favour of higher prices. We are in favour of much lower prices than people have had to suffer under this Government during the last three years. No Government have ever had a worse record on prices than this one, and this Government will be associated for ever in the minds of our people with high prices, whether they have introduced a Price Commission Bill or not.

We have had 28 hours of debate on the Bill. That is not because we have sought to wreck the Bill or to get rid of it in any way; it is because the Government cannot manage their own business. They were confronted with 37 amendments, more than half of which were moved by the Government, and 33 votes that we thought were necessary, yet they allocated only a day and a half for the Bill. Had we been given sufficient time to deal with all the important amendments we could have proceeded with the matter at far more advantageous hours than we did. I make no bones about that. We do not like the Bill, because we believe that it will do great harm. The only justification for such a Bill is in the context of a phase 3 pay policy. We do not believe that profiteering is, or has been, taking place and therefore we do not believe that the Bill is necessary.

Most of all, we fear that the only outcome of the Bill in the medium term will be far higher unemployment than we now have. That is the most important message. The Government will be doing serious and irresponsible damage to business and industry.

Mr. Heffer

We have sat here for a long time, so the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) can give way to me for a second. She must know that our people will take full note of the fact that when the Government bring in a Bill—and a rather modest one at that—to deal more effectively with prices than previous regulations have, the Tory Party has, for two days and a night, opposed it. It is quite clear—whether the hon. Member for Gloucester recognises it or not—that people will draw the necessary conclusion that the Tory Party is against controlling prices.

Mrs. Oppenheim

I have some sympathy for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) wishing to make a point, because he has not spoken although he has attended the debate for a long night and day. However, he should remember that the Secretary of State admitted that if there had been no price or profit controls during the last two or three years prices would not have been any higher than they now are.

I go around the country speaking to housewives, pensioners and young mothers, and find that they are devastated by prices. I speak to pensioners who have not seen meat for weeks and young housewives who say that their children have not seen fruit for months, yet not one of those people has ever told me that I should support the Price Commission Bill because it is important in fighting inflation.

We are concerned about the wide scope and the discretion given in the Bill, as well as the imprecise criteria and inadequate safeguards that it provides. None of our crucial amendments has been accepted. The Bill has a greater potential to do damage than was necessary. We shall not support a Bill that is unnecessary and unfair, containing safeguard levels that will, in many cases, lead to unreasonable and low profits.

We have not been dogmatic in our approach. We did not vote against Second Reading and we participated in a constructive Committee stage, which finished ahead of time. We have been patient and responsible during the debates of the last 24 hours. Here I should like to pay further tribute to my hon. Friends—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. I hope that we shall end up on a peaceful and sleepy note.

Mrs. Oppenheim

I thank my hon. Friends sincerely for their co-operation and support. We have now reached the point where our opposition to the Bill is outright because of its powers, its duration and its lack of adequate safeguards. We do not believe that this measure, any more than any of the Government's other counter-inflationary measures, will do any good. My fear is that it will combine the worst of all worlds for consumers, investment and employment, and I shall recom- mend my hon. Friends to vote against it on Third Reading.

8.28 p.m.

Mrs. Bain

As the representative of the minority parties and one who served on the Standing Committee, I found this an interesting Bill with which to be involved. The Committee stage went through quicker than most of us had anticipated and it has been even more interesting to take part in the Report and Third Reading stages.

However, the chaos that has existed in the past 20 hours has done little to bring respect to the House. Surely what we have gone through in the past two days is an argument for the House to review its legislative processes. It is the firm conviction of my hon. Friends that an Assembly in Scotland would be able to deal with legislation in a much more effective way.

We were disappointed that the Government could not accept our positive and sensible amendments, particularly since they deal with employment, Scottish representation on the Price Commission, and regional imbalances in prices. We have played a responsible and sensible rôle on this legislation and I have recommended my hon. Friends to abstain on Third Reading.

We are taking this course because we do not oppose the basic concept of price control and the Bill is at least a step in this direction, and it is important, particularly at this time, when prices are such a contentious issue for so many families. However, we cannot give full-hearted support to a Bill that does not have the power to bring in all the controls that are necessary and that shows a lack of clarity in the powers that do exist.

Sectors of industry have also expressed reservations to my colleagues, who have been voting regularly in the past 28 hours, about the effects of the Bill on industry and, particularly, on employment.

8.31 p.m.

Mr. Loyden

Everyone agrees that price control has become one of the most important elements in economic strategy. There has been an explosive increase in prices that has had a direct effect on the wealth-creating population in this country.

During the passage of the Bill my hon. Friends and I have attempted to introduce elements of positive price control. One of the amazing features of present price increases is the numerous and varied reasons given for them. In our lifetimes, hon. Members have heard of every type of climatic condition, including frost, drought and flood, but the sort of explosive price increases that we are seeing now have nothing to do with climatic conditions.

Housewives, househusbands and housekeepers generally are becoming cynical about the various reasons given for price increases. It is inevitable that in most cases the Government are blamed—even though this is generally unjustified. When the Government are held responsible for many price increases it behaves them to take effective measures to deal with these increases.

My hon. Friends and I wanted to see more positive measures related to the general economic strategy and linking price increases and inflation with planning agreements. We should also have liked to introduce a power for the Secretary of State to apply price freezes when he felt that they were necessary. Unless the Government get prices under control their whole economic strategy is in danger. That is why we have argued the case for our amendments. Unfortunately, they were not selected for debate on Report, but the Government have gone some way towards meeting the arguments that we deployed at earlier stages of the Bill.

We believe, although there was positive control only over wages and less control over dividends, that the economic parcel was a great contribution to the future economic strategy of the Government. Therefore, we hope that the measures in the Bill will result in the Government's gaining a greater degree of control over the prices situation.

We shall follow this Bill carefully to see whether these measures are effective in the way that the Government have outlined. If they are not effective, it will be upon the Government's shoulders to take alternative measures that will bring about a situation in which prices, which are now a major aspect of economic strategy, are brought under their control.

For those reasons we welcome the Bill, in the sense that there has been a move towards us. We do so in a cautious way, knowing full well that the test of the Bill will be to see whether it controls prices and begins to bring about equity between rigid control over wages and the price mechanism, over which there is no apparent control at present.

8.36 p.m.

Mr. Hatlersley

This has been a long parliamentary day, but at the end of it the Price Commission Bill goes to the House of Lords in a form virtually identical to that in which it was submitted to this House. Margin control and dividend control remain for a single year rather than being annually renewable for three. That remains for the next crucial year of the anti-inflation battle.

Much more important, the central power of the Bill to investigate price increases and reduce prices which are not justified remains as a permanent feature of economic management in this country. I must remind the Opposition that, to the Government, that is right in itself. We believe in selective Government intervention in the economy. We believe that we achieved in the past two days, in the preceding Committee stage and on Second Reading, a substantial movement towards creating a right kind of relationship between Government, economic management and the economy as a whole.

I said on Report, and repeat now, that we have established criteria for justifiable price increases. The power to prevent those price increases, if they are not justified, is laid down in the additional rules for the management of the mixed economy. My party began to do that in 1948 with monopolies and mergers. To date we are continuing the process of economic management as a further step. We believe that to be right in itself.

I also believe in the practical and pragmatic advantages of the powers which I believe will be confirmed on Third Reading. I believe that those powers are right for the economy as a whole. I know that they are right for the consumer. I believe they are right for industry.

No objective observer believes that the efficient and socially responsible firm in this country has anything to fear from the Price Commission. The fears that have been stimulated in some quarters of this House over the past 27 hours are based much more on political prejudice than on sound industrial judgment.

Much of that political prejudice has come from the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim). We heard it again during her speech 10 minutes ago. The hon. Lady is extraordinarily predictable. Every speech she makes is in favour of getting prices down, but we are never told how that may be done. Every speech is always in favour of price control, but we are never told what is that price control. The facts of the situation—the record—is that for the past 27 hours she has led her party in solid and determined opposition to the price control policy of the Government. She opposed it line by line, as she said she would. She opposed it with a great deal of courage and determination. I pay credit and tribute to her determination.

I propose to repeat the reality of the past 27 hours over and over again in the next 18 months.

The hon. Lady said that there had been no filibustering. I have transcripts of speeches made by the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings) and the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker). I do not propose to read out what they said, not least because not a word of the three speeches they made between midnight and 2 o'clock was remotely related to the Bill or its passage.

We have had a factious, irrelevant Opposition, partly for doctrinal reasons but partly for another reason. On 10th June it was reported in The Times that Conservative circles had announced that they had decided either to delay the Bill to such an extent that it could not pass into law by 1st August or so to remove its powers that it would be virtually not the Bill we introduced two months ago. For the past 27 hours the Conservatives have been striving to make that announcement come true. They have hopelessly failed. The Bill is substantially as it always was.

My final words about this exercise are these: I do not thank my right hon. and hon. Friends for what they have done over the past 27 hours; thanks would be impertinent. It is not something that they have done for me; they have done it because they believe in it, because they believe that it is right for the party, the Government, and the country.

What the Conservatives have achieved over the past 27 hours is to have Labour voting with solid enthusiasm for the Bill and demonstrating that those newspapers that have been saying during the past two weeks that we are no longer in control of the House of Commons are patently wrong.

The Labour Party has demonstrated over the past two days how we shall continue. We shall continue by our united support for measures that fulfil the hopes and aspirations of our party and meet the needs of the country. The Bill is such a measure, and I commend it to the House for Third Reading.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House divided: Ayes 254. Noes 224.

[For Division List No. 180 see c. 1677]

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time and passed.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order. Is it not usual on these important occasions for the Leader of the Opposition and her entourage to be in position to explain why, in this marathon sitting, they have participated all along the line in seeking to let prices escalate even further than they are today? Would it be within your powers, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to look round the corner and see whether the Leader of the Opposition is still hiding in the passageway?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but that is not a matter that concerns the Chair.

Mr. Tebbit

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Do you have any means of conjuring up the Leader of the Liberal Party to explain why his party has sustained the Government in office again?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a matter for the Chair, either.