HL Deb 19 July 1963 vol 252 cc414-9

12.5 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Statistics of Trade Act 1947 (Amendment of Schedule) Order 1963 be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on the 3rd instant. The Statistics of Trade Act, 1947, gives statutory authority for the collection of statistics necessary for the appreciation of economic trends. It supersedes the previous Census of Production Acts, the first of which was passed in 1906, and gives the Government wider powers to collect information than were available under those Acts.

The House will know that the Statistics of Trade Act had its genesis in the 1944 White Paper on Employment Policy, which recommended that the economic statistics built up during the war years should largely be continued and, where necessary, supplemented. To ensure that these needed statistics would be available Section 1 of the Statistics of Trade Act gave wide powers to a number of Departments. The economic statistics which have been obtained under the Act and through the voluntary co-operation of industry have been of the utmost value to the Government in its guidance of the economy. Section 2 gave effect to the recommendations of the two Committees on the Census of Production and the Census of Distribution, obliging the Board to take annual censuses of production and giving it powers to taken censuses of distribution. The emphasis at his time was on having adequate information about industry and trade, particularly about employment, output, orders and about the level of and changes in the aggregate demand on resources.

The Act has worked well, and the sixteen years since it was passed have seen a considerable extension in the statistical information now available about the economy. This is, of course, not a Party matter. The White Paper on Employment Policy was produced by the Coalition Government, and we all agree that policy is best developed in the light of free discussion based on the fullest possible information available to the Government, industry, the universities, the Press, and hence to all interested persons alike.

The Schedule to the Act lists the matters about which persons carrying on an undertaking may be required to furnish estimates or returns. Broadly speaking, they are confined to industrial and commercial subjects. In the event, of course, particularly since 1951, experience has shown that our economic situation is dependent not only on the broad direction of economic policy, but also upon the establishment of satisfactory financial conditions, both as regards our relationships with other countries and as regards the domestic monetary position. Indeed, the primary post-war economic problem has been how, while maintaining full employment, to achieve a satisfactory balance of payments and reasonable stability in our domestic financial and monetary arrangements. The Statistics of Trade Act, however, does not give the Government powers to obtain information on many of the matters which are now seen to bear most directly on these two aspects of our affairs.

Under Section 5 of the Act, the Schedule to the Act may be amended by Order in Council by adding to the matters specified therein any other matter. The purpose of the Draft Order, which we are discussing today, and which was laid before the House on July 3, is to add to the Schedule the following matters:— Assets (other than fixed capital assets) and liabilities of the undertaking, including the acquisition and disposal of those assets and the incurring and discharge of those liabilities; prices of articles and services. In particular, this covers financial assets and liabilities about which information cannot in general be collected under the Schedule as it stands at present. The Draft Order also gives statutory backing to the wholesale and retail price statistics. The importance of statistics of retail prices among our economic indicators is universally understood and it is only right that this should be recognised by the inclusion of retail prices among the subjects in the Schedule. Statistics of wholesale prices are of considerable value to industry, and indeed to all of us, since the price mechanism plays such an important part in the working of our economy. This is information no less important than that on other subjects in the Schedule.

The case for obtaining better information about the market in capital and credit and generally about our financial affairs was very well expressed by the Radcliffe Committee on the Working of the Monetary System. They argued that for wise direction of our monetary policy by the authorities, and a proper understanding and healthy criticism of the policies they may follow, much better information is needed about the distribution of the ownership of assets of different sorts and of the liabilities against which they are held, and about the transactions in these financial assets which take place, particularly between different categories and sectors of the community.

In the debate in the House which followed the publication of the Radcliffe Report, the Government warmly welcomed the advice of the Radcliffe Committee on statistics, and your Lordships will be aware of the considerable expansion in the information now available. This expansion has been achieved, as the Committee hoped, by the voluntary co-operation of the institutions concerned. Most of the key financial and monetary statistics of the United Kingdom, including several which have been collected only since the Radcliffe Committee reported, are brought together every month in Financial Statistics, prepared by the Central Statistical Office, which has been appearing since May, 1962, and has been recognised as a valuable addition to the armoury of statistical information. Our object in all this has been to provide a clearer picture of the functioning of the capital market, who owns the various financial assets and liabilities, including the various kinds of securities, and the transactions that take place in them.

The proposed extension of the existing powers will give legal backing to our work and ensure that for our financial, as well as for our industrial and commercial affairs, the Government will be able to get the information they need. With the recognition of the importance of financial matters this seems to be clearly right. The Order is, in fact, doing no more than making the Act apposite to changed conditions and needs. I have no doubt, however, that, as in the past, we shall be able to secure the greater part of the information the Government need on a voluntary basis, through the co-operation of the business community, to whom I should like to express my appreciation for their repeated, numerous and unobstrusive acts of public service in providing statistics.

Our purpose in making these inquiries is to inform ourselves about the economic situation and prospects, and about the working of a highly complex social mechanism. Firms in industry know this full well, and they also know how confidential we hold the information which we receive. I am glad to take this opportunity of making clear that all the information supplied by individual concerns is held in the utmost confidence, as the Act itself enjoins. National statistics, and statistics for particular sectors of the economy, to which we all look for guidance about our affairs, can, in general, be built up only from the figures supplied by individual undertakings. It is to get these totals and aggregates that we ask for statistics from businesses, and not to conduct an inquisition into their affairs.

Although the Order extends the range of subjects about which the Government may be able to obtain information, the same confidential provisions which have worked so satisfactorily during the past sixteen years will extend to the new information as to the old. The provisions are set forth in Section 9 of the Act. No particulars can be published which would reveal the business of an individual undertaking without its previous consent in writing. Section 9(1) of the Act, however, empowers information about individual firms collected under the Act to be disclosed to a Government Department—that is, to a Department other than the collecting Department—on the direction of the Minister in charge of the collecting Department, and nobody else.

The purpose of this proviso is, as was made clear in the original discussion in this House in 1947, to prevent unnecessary duplication of inquiry. It has, in the event, been sparingly used, and so far as the Board are concerned the information thus passed has mainly been to help Departments to identify firms engaged in particular trades, so that inquiries may be directed as economically as possible. The few cases where data about individual firms have been passed have been for such objects as helping in the compilation of an Index of Production for Scotland or assisting the Government Actuary in the inquiry into pension Schemes.

I think I should add that in making this Order the Government do not intend to change their practice of looking to the Bank of England to collect the statistics which they need about banking. The Bank stands in a very special relationship to the banking community, and has its own statutory powers for collecting statistics, embodying a clause that prevents it from asking for information about the affairs of any particular customer of a banker. We have no intention of disturbing this situation by collecting banking statistics under the new powers. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Statistics of Trade Act 1947 (Amendment of Schedule) Order 1963 be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on the 3rd instant.—(Lord Derwent.)

On Question, Motion agreed to: the said Address to be presented to Her Majesty by the Lords with White Staves.