HL Deb 27 July 1955 vol 193 cc1134-41

6.19 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, after the extremely able and clear speech that was given us by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, I am happy to inform your Lordships that there is not much more I need add by way of explanation to this Motion. This has been art extremely helpful debate. In saying that. I am not giving voice to the customary clichés which one is accustomed to utter—I mean that. As your Lordships are now fully aware, the Government's proposals are not complete, and it was therefore a great advantage for us to hear your Lordships' views. Those views will bear very strongly upon my right honourable friend when he comes to formulate further proposals. The Government welcome the comments of your Lordships, and we shall welcome the comments of industry and the trade unions. Here again I should not like noble Lords to think that that is a mere platitude, for we genuinely wish to receive those comments and suggestions. If we could receive them by the end of September, it would greatly help us in expediting the necessary legislation. I can assure my noble friend Lord Rochdale that, although the Government seek these views, there will be no question of applying the lowest common multiple. The Government will be prepared to toe the line to nobody but will take their own line, or any other line if they so see fit.

All of us who have studied this Report of the Commission and the Lloyd Jacob Report will readily admit that this is an extraordinarily complicated subject. Even those who have spent a lifetime in industry sometimes have difficulty in understanding the niceties of it, and Her Majesty's Government have had only a few weeks in which to study this extraordinarily complicated subject. I feel that we are entitled to take some small credit for producing the outline of our scheme as speedily as we have. I would emphasise that the Motion before the House to-day is in deliberately broad terms. We are only asking your Lordships to welcome the Report as a basis for the formulation of our proposals. For that reason I make no apology if I am unable to answer many of the questions which you have put to me to-day. It is not for the usual reason that either I do not know or have forgotten the answer; it is for the slightly unusual reason that there is not yet an answer in existence. At least the debate gives us some indication of the way in which noble Lords are thinking.

The fact that we have not yet formed all our plans is understandable when it is appreciated what an enormous and genuine divergence of view there has been on this subject. There is divergence in the Report, of course, and I would caution the undesirability of counting heads between the majority and the minority in assessing the virtues of the two Reports. There has been a difference of opinion among certain noble Lords who sit opposite and their supporters, as we have seen in the debate in another place, and I think even slightly to-day. Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, I may even suggest that there are differences upon this subject between noble Lords who sit on these Benches behind me, although I know that those views are strongly held by others. There have been divergencies, too, in the sober and informed Press.

The noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, gave us a splendid, rumbustious speech which we all, on both sides of the House, thoroughly enjoyed. I even agreed with some of it, though I can assure him not with all. The noble Viscount even went so far as to read to us from his own works, a habit started, I believe, by Charles Dickens. I have taken a rapid check of your Lordships' Library. Thirty-six noble Lords have written books and presented copies to the Library, so that if this precedent catches on we shall have some interesting debates. I am entitled to reply to the noble Viscount's quotation from the Financial Times by a quotation from a paper of equal weight and worth, the Economist, which stated on July 16: The Monopolies Bill that the Government intends to introduce in the Autumn looks likely to be a much bolder measure than most M.Ps.—and most of the Press—realised after Mr. Thorneycroft's statement on Wednesday. And it went on: If it is really pushed through it will carry the struggle against monopolies slightly further and faster than outright adoption of the Majority Report could have done. I have read that statement so that noble Lords may realise there are divergencies among responsible papers, as there have been on the Benches of this House.

One approach which it would be clearly wrong to take is that of Party politics. We have had very few Party politics this afternoon. They crept into the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, now and then, but perhaps that was because he was carried away with his own enthusiasm for his lifelong hobby. I make no complaint about that. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, said that not everything is black or white; there must be grey from time to time. I say that only to emphasise that the scheme which Her Majesty's Government are putting forward is not a compromise between various things. It is not the lowest common multiple, and I think that, as the Economist says, it will go further and faster than outright adoption of the Majority Report could have done. May I turn to one or two points which have emerged in the course of this interesting debate. There has been unanimous support for the undesirability of creating new crimes out of old practices. I remember that in a debate a little while ago on the Committee stage of the Road Traffic Bill, which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, will doubtless remember, the Lord Chief Justice cautioned us, on certain very sensible-looking proposals on the Order Paper, against inventing a large number of new crimes. That seems to be advice which we should take in regard to the proposed Bill on this matter. Industry and the public would resent the creation of a large number of such new crimes. I was happy to hear my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack emphasise the civil aspect of the sanctions involved here. We are approaching it from the economic and commercial viewpoint; the ethical viewpoint arises only incidentally.

We have had several speeches this afternoon on the subject of secret trade courts, popularly called "Star Chamber courts." From listening to those speeches it is perfectly clear that noble Lords do not like such courts. But, in justice, I must say that many of them go out of their way to be scrupulously fair; and they succeed in being so. I could not help being amused at the reference by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, to the difference of opinion over one law for the rich and one for the poor. In the treatment meted out by these courts, I have heard it suggested that it is not always one law for the rich and one for the poor, but rather one law for the rich and one for the very rich. That is certainly an accusation that can occasionally be levelled, but it is only fair to say that we do not doubt the sincerity of the motives or efforts of many trade courts. Some of these trade associations have come in for some very rough handling, for people regard them as organisations solely concerned with manipulation of trade courts, whereas they have a multitude of other duties and play an important part in the economy of the country. They are very far from being as black as they have recently been painted. It is also fair to bear in mind that the "crime"—if that is the word—for which somebody is tried is the not very attractive one of breaking a bargain made with one's fellows in order to collect a larger profit for oneself.


My Lords, that is a very important point to many noble Lords. It is rather out of place to discuss whether we support the fairness or otherwise of action taken by a court of this kind because people break a contract into which they have entered. Our submission is that no contract of that kind should be entered into which includes any restraint of trade and which might lead to supplies being withheld.


I fully appreciate the point of the noble Viscount, but in carrying out that procedure the courts are perfectly fair.

We have heard a great deal about price maintenance, collective and individual, and at this hour of the night I am not going to argue the pros and cons—indeed, it is not my job to do so; nor is it relevant to the Motion before us. But since the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, made the point, it is worth noting that women's organisations which gave evidence before the Commission expressed a preference for one form of it because it gave them confidence in the reliability of branded goods. That is not the real problem. The real problem that we have to solve is the problem of finding some alternative method of enforcement. That is the difficulty.

The other point with which we cannot have failed to be struck, in listening to the speeches this afternoon, is that we are fully agreed that not all monopolies and collective discriminations are necessarily bad. Listening to your Lordships, I could not help coming to the conclusion that monopolies are rather like babies—none of us likes them until he has one of his own. But that does not necessarily mean that they are all bad; and nobody has tried to put that theory forward. That is a point which should be welcomed, because in all walks of life, in the complexity of the modern age, some element of monopoly must be found. This is not a Report on monopolies generally—it is a very specialised and highly technical branch of the monopolistic field that we are dealing with this afternoon. I would ask the noble Lords, Lord Grantchester and Lord Teviot, to forgive me for not dealing in detail with the interesting points which they made. These seemed to me to go a little wider than the actual matter which is before us to-day. We are agreed upon this, I hope: that we are hostile to the monopolistic practices which have been proved to be damaging to the community. If practices are questionable they will have to be justified before being accepted by the community in the future. That seems to me to be the difference of tone that has come into our approach to the subject in the last few years.

As to points that have been raised in this debate, I suppose that the specific question of delay was the main one. The noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough made much of it. I hope he was satisfied—though I am rather afraid he was not—with the extremely able answer which was given to him by my noble and learned friend. Perhaps he will study it carefully, and we can go into the matter again when the question of legislation arises. I assure your Lordships that we intend to press on, not only with legislation but with administration after legislation, with all possible speed. I can promise my noble friend Lord Grantchester that we desire to get on with this matter as fast as possible. We think that our scheme is speedier than the majority's proposals, with their possibilities of a multiplicity of loopholes and exceptions. The noble Lord disagrees. We must discuss it later.

There is one point to which I think he has not given full weight. Once the precedent is established, and the machinery working, I think that the smaller trades will, in the words of my noble friend Lord Ridley, "adjust their affairs accordingly." That was the expression he used. If my noble friend will cast his mind back to the passing of the Merchandise Marks Act, he will remember that there was talk at the time of many prosecutions. But we always thought that what would happen would be that people would study the working of the Act and adjust their plans accordingly. As things have worked out, there have not been many prosecutions. And I think that is how this scheme may well work out. I think that people will voluntarily accept decisions given about another firm and will adjust themselves to judgments by consent. I even hear tell of one trade organisation which has already started to readjust its affairs in order to "beat the pistol." I think that more will follow. I must admit to the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, that the scheme will probably start slowly. That, I believe, must be so and in my view is desirable. I think that once the machinery starts working, it will be found to go much faster than Lord Alexander anticipates.

I was asked several questions, notably by Lord Rochdale, about the nature of the Tribunal. I rather gathered, from listening to Lord Lucas of Chilworth, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough and Lord Rochdale, that the House seems to favour a judicial type of Tribunal, with a lawyer at its head, rather than an administrative tribunal, with a Minister or some Governmental representative presiding. I believe that I am coming to that way of thinking myself, but I have not delved very deeply into this point. I am sorry that noble Lords opposite think that there are too many lawyers. I used to think so myself when I was in practice, but I have changed my views since. This debate, of course, was opened by a lawyer, and it is being closed by a lawyer.


It is quite a close corporation.


I see the noble Viscount's point. We shall obviously have to take great care in deciding on the size and composition of the Tribunal. If I have understood the House aright, I will tell my right honourable friend, the President of the Board of Trade, which way your Lordships are thinking—that is, that you would prefer a small Tribunal, composed of three persons or five persons, at the most, of whom one should be a lawyer, to sift evidence, and one, obviously, an individual with experience of industrial affairs. I think there must be a right of appeal. If it is a judicial tribunal, the appeal would be to a court of law, but if an administrative tribunal the appeal would be to the Minister. I think we must consider the possibility, once we have accumulated a collection of Case Law, of reviewing that Case Law from time to time, particularly if the economic situation changes.

My Lords, these are rough ideas. I think we can see which way we are moving. We should welcome more suggestions. One or two of your Lordships have wondered whether there might be some clash between the Tribunal and the Commission itself. That is something we shall have to consider very carefully; and I think we shall have to take steps to ensure that there is not too much overlapping.

I feel that there will still be useful and valuable work for the Monopolies Commission to do, with big firm monopolies that have still to be investigated. But I do not see much prospect of trouble there. The noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, asked me about the publication of evidence. I think there would be considerable difficulty about that owing solely to the fact that the evidence was given in confidence.

Those are the main points that have arisen in our debate to-day. I must apologise for not being able to deal with one or two of your Lordships' points, We have not yet come to a decision on these matters. This solution which we are putting forward may not be perfect—few solutions in this world are. But we think that this will go a long way to carry out what we want. At the same time we acknowledge that there is room for further improvement, and we shall welcome any suggestions. This is only the basis of the proposals: we think it is a sound basis, though one which can be improved. This is a sincere attempt to meet our obligations and to carry out what we have always wanted to do. We think it is a fair and practical solution of a difficult problem, and we feel that, as public and professional reaction has time to manifest itself, it will swing more from the views of noble Lords opposite to those of noble Lords on these Benches. I ask your Lordships once more to think the matter over. We consider that this is a much bolder scheme than was at first realised, and one which may well prove a major legislative achievement in the years to come.

On Question, Motion agreed to.