§ 2.49 p.m.
§ THE MINISTER OF STATE, HOME OFFICE (LORD HARRIS OF GREENWICH)
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
§ Moved, that the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Harris of Greenwich.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The EARL OF LISTOWEL in the Chair.]
§ Clause 1 [Food subsidies]:
LORD ABERDARE moved Amendment No. 1:
Page 1, line 11, leave out from ("sale") to ("and") in line 12.
§ The noble Lord said: The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, will be relieved to know that I have no intention of pressing this Amendment. It is purely an exploratory Amendment concerned with the scheme for subsidising household flour. The schemes for subsidising the other foods—milk, butter, cheese and bread—have already been announced; we know how they will work and what 8 they will cost. But if the noble Lord is in a position to give us further information about the scheme for flour we should be most grateful. I beg to move.
§ 2.50 p.m.
§ LORD HARRIS OF GREENWICH
I think I should explain why the Government have felt it necessary to subsidise household flour, before coming to the specific points about which the noble Lord asked. When the Bill was first published, Clause 1(2) referred only to subsidies on milk, butter and flour for the production of bread, but as the subsidy programme was developed it was decided to add cheese and, more recently, household flour. The Government's objective has been to select basic foodstuffs that feature regularly in the shopping of most households, and, in particular, to take action where prices have been subject to sharp increases. Household flour meets these criteria. Although it obviously does not account for such a large proportion of consumer expenditure as milk or bread, it is none the less an important item for the average housewife. Total household consumption has been estimated at about 400,000 tons a year, with a value at the retail level of around £40 million.
Against this background the Government were particularly concerned about the rising price of household flour. All cereals-based products have been subject to large price increases, and flour is no exception to this. Between December last year and May, the index of the Department of Employment showed that the average price of a 3 lb. packet of self-raising flour rose from 14.9p to 20.2p. This is an increase of over 5p, or about 35 per cent., in only five months. Because of this serious situation the Government are anxious to act as quickly as possible. Indeed, this is the basic reason why powers have been taken in the Bill, so that action can be taken without going through the formality of an order under Clause 1(2)(b) of the Bill.
I know that this problem has been causing concern to a number of people outside this House, as well as inside it. There are a number of important details to be worked out in consultation with the trade. Perhaps even more important, it is still uncertain whether there will be further price increases in the near future. It is true that cereals prices have fallen back from the exceptionally high levels 9 obtaining at the beginning of this year, but prices are still considerably higher than normal. To ensure continuity of supply, it is the normal practice for the trade to contract for supplies some way ahead. It will therefore take some time before deductions in world market prices work their way through to the consumer. At the same time, other overheads and basic costs—for example, labour, fuel, and packaging—are rising and will tend to offset the present scale of reduction in world prices.
It will take a little more time, I fear, to clarify these problems, but as soon as they are clarified we will announce the full details of the scheme, including its coverage and indeed the rate of subsidy. I recognise that it would have helped your Lordships in the consideration of this aspect of the Bill if the details of the scheme could have been made available to-day, but unhappily, for the reasons that I have mentioned, I am afraid that this is not possible. I can give some figures for the purpose of illustration, and I think that these will meet the specific point that the noble Lord raised. A subsidy of 3p on the usual 3 lb. packet would involve annual expenditure of the order of £10 million. There would be some marginal additional administrative costs, but I do not think that they would be unduly large.
There is one other point to which I might refer in support of the general subsidy on household flour; that is, the very large number of representations that the Government have received asking for just such a subsidy. There are the housewives who prefer to make their own bread, and who were thus unable to obtain the benefit of a general bread subsidy. The Government will seek to meet the wishes of these consumers by including in the subsidy scheme all the main types of flour used for home baking, including whole-meal flour which has been specifically mentioned in quite a substantial number of the letters received.
I was reassured to hear what the noble Lord said about not pushing this Amendment to a Division, because it is now unnecessary for me to quote the gracious words of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, when my noble friend Lord Jacques made a Statement on the bread subsidy, on May 9 at column 651 of the OFFICIAL REPORT. However, if I may 10 quote the words of the noble Baroness, speaking from the Front Bench opposite, she said:Finally, if the bread subsidy is to continue, will the noble Lord consider subsidising flour directly so that it might be of benefit to those provident housewives who bake their own bread?I am glad to reassure both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, that the Government have met this point totally within the provisions of the Bill. In view of the various factors that I have mentioned this afternoon, I would commend this proposition to the Committee.
§ 2.56 p.m.
§ LORD HALE
May I intervene to make two brief observations about this matter expressing something near to a minor dissent? Flour is not a working-class commodity. The old-age pensioners of Oldham do not use flour because they have not got the cooking facilities to use it; indeed, cooking is exceedingly expensive. Flour is a middle-class commodity. But I think that the middle-class have probably been hit harder, relatively speaking, these days than any other class, and I am perfectly prepared to let them have this modest subsidy without objection.
I hope that the noble Lord will go on to say that the Government are going to reverse the practice of the last Government in relation to international wheat dealings and commodity markets. This matter will be considered by the United Nations at two separate conferences being held this year. The British Government voted against any organisation through the United Nations to try to keep a tab on gambling in raw materials and commodities, and everybody now knows—indeed we are indebted to, I think, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for opening the debate which developed the point—that the reason why flour is more costly in England depends a very great deal on the fact that the Russians managed to buy from the Americans more wheat than the Americans had got at a low price, which greatly added to the prices of American food generally.
I am quite sure that this is out of order, and would have been ruled out of order in another place; but, in a rare example, I am trespassing on the courtesies of the House to mention this matter 11 and to express the hope that the Government are dealing with the question very seriously, because it is important.
§ LORD HARRIS OF GREENWICH
I shall be glad to take note of the point that my noble friend has raised.
§ LORD ABERDARE
I am grateful for the information that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has given to the Committee. I do not think that it is really very satisfactory that we should have in the Bill a provision for the subsidy of an item without knowing the details of the scheme that is concerned. As I said, on the other items we know what is involved, and if it is desired to add a further item then that has to be done, as I understand it, by an Order which is subject to the affirmative approval of both Houses. Therefore, to that extent the provisions for flour fall into a sort of intermediate case where they are in the Bill, but we do not know any details about them.
I appreciate the difficulty of the noble Lord. I would only ask that if the details of the scheme become known during the course of this Bill going through this House that he would be kind enough to let us know. I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ LORD BARNBY
We are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for his explanation. I should like to support a portion of the remarks just made by the noble Lord, Lord Hale. It seems that this is an instance where support is being given to families that are outside the less affluent sections of the community, because of the fact that a very small proportion of the less affluent households have the facilities for using the flour. Therefore, it would seem that in this instance the majority of the support under this category will go to families that are least in need of that subsidy.
Perhaps the noble Lord, in replying to my noble friend Lord Aberdare, would give some indication as to how this is to be administered. Is there any way in which the discrimination which should be in the Bill to give the least support to the most affluent people can be carried out? Again, is there to be any differentiation in regard to the proportion of support which will be given under this Part of the Bill, about which the noble Lord, 12 Lord Harris of Greenwich, replied to my noble friend Lord Aberdare? Then, has there been any thought as to differentiating the support which is to be given to different classes of flour? Without going into technical terminology, it is generally understood that certain classes of flour are less deleterious to the consumer than others. It would seem that there is an admirable opportunity here, not only to save money, but to contribute something to the educational requirements of guiding people as to how nutrition should best be given.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
I do not intend to let my noble friend Lord Hale and the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, get away with this myth that flour is not used in working-class households but is the prerogative of the middle classes. Have they never heard of Yorkshire pudding with the Sunday joint? My noble friend Lord Hale probably has not; he sat for a Lancashire constituency for many years. But the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, is a Yorkshireman, I believe, and he should be fully conversant with this great delicacy, which is the apple of the eye of working-class families on Sundays.
Working-class families, too, like steak and kidney pie, which also calls for flour; they like jam tarts, too. The rolling pin is one of the essential domestic items in the ordinary working-class household. I have never heard so much rot in all my life. I am glad that my noble friend is subsidising flour. It is one of the most sensible subsidies to have been put into operation under this Bill.
§ LORD HALE
May I thank my noble friend for his courteous reference to my observations, which is not untypical of some of the observations he has been making recently in relation to other of my honourable friends. But the plain answer is that I referred to the old-age pensioners of Oldham. I do not think I said anything about working classes: if I did, I apologise. It is a phrase I do not like to use. It is an objectionable form of terminology and classification from any point of view. Indeed, I call myself "lower middle-class" and I do not think that gives any distinction. In the old days, when they did serve Yorkshire pudding over the Yorkshire Border, they made them mainly with 13 eggs. In those days people in full employment were able to buy an occasional egg, but not many. On the other hand, as I have made a comprehensive study into the feeding habits of old-age pensioners and their feeding potentiality, I can say that if anyone tries to work it out on the many figures available they will find that the largest single item involved is potatoes.
In towns like Oldham—about which I do know because I have been there thirty years and visited every house in the town—for many years 80 per cent. of the houses scheduled for destruction did not contain a modern gas or electric cooking stove. With the price of electricity and gas to-day, I should be most happy if the noble Lord would contribute to the old-age pensioners' monthly journal a little advice on how to cook, and at what expense, in allocating at least half their income to the desperate expense these days of trying to keep a roof over their heads. Therefore, I have nothing to withdraw or apologise for in the observations that I made, which were based on a long and extensive experience of the living of the less well-off classes of the community in over-populated urban areas.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
My noble friend has invited me to teach people how to cook. Fortunately, that is one of the things I can do. Long ago when I was in the Army I was sent away on a cooking course because it was felt that a company quarter-master sergeant, as I then was, should know how to make the best use of the rations. I can tell my noble friend how to cook a Yorkshire pudding, and he does not need a gas or electric stove to do it. I have seen them cooked in ordinary coal ovens in many humble cottages.
§ LORD BARNBY
Being a Yorkshire-man I cannot let pass the opportunity of commenting on the noble Lord's remarks. Certainly a Yorkshire pudding is something which we all enjoy and are proud of. But again it is contestable as to what proportion of households in the different affluent categories of the community would have Yorkshire pudding. In any case it is a small proportion that would have the proper kind of Yorkshire pudding. But the noble Lord did not make any comment in which I would 14 have been interested on the relative merit of a subvention on flour as against bread. It would seem that there is a differentiation and a justification for it, and that the proportion of bread consumed in relation to flour consumed in the different categories of the community varies a good deal.
§ BARONESS SUMMERSKILL
May I remark with what great pleasure I hear two male Members of the House argue the merits of how to cook a Yorkshire pudding?
§ LORD HARRIS OF GREENWICH
I think the safest thing to do in this rather perilous controversy between my noble friends Lord Hale and Lord Leatherland is to steer a discreet path between them. I can confirm that so far as I am aware the Government have not a clearly defined policy on Yorkshire pudding, except to confirm, I think, that the flour element of it will receive a subsidy once the Bill goes on to the Statute Book. On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, and as his noble friend Lady Young indicated earlier, in this question which I quoted it is only fair to subsidise flour so that those people who do bake bread themselves, quite apart from the other people who will gain some degree of advantage from the provision, should have a subsidy for household flour. That is why the Government have made this proposal.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 1 agreed to.
§ Clause 2 [Power of Secretary of State to regulate price of food and certain other goods]:
§ 3.9 p.m.
LORD ELTON moved Amendment No. 2:
Page 4, line 32, at end insert
("(d) an order under paragraph (a) of that subsection shall not have the effect of requiring persons to sell at a loss.").
§ The noble Lord said: This is a straightforward and simple Amendment, but it seems to me that it is not so regarded on the other side of the Committee, and that noble Lords opposite need to be reassurred that my sleeves are empty of cards on this occasion. The aim of the Amendment is perfectly straightforward. 15 The proposition that the Minister might, as a matter of course, require retailers to retail goods for less than they had been forced to pay for them for any length of time is an unlikely one. I shall refer later to the dangers of that proposition when we discuss the condition of the small shopkeeper, which is very parlous indeed at the moment. No concern, however large, profitable and well-run could be expected voluntarily to sell goods at a loss, and if they were so required the line of goods in question would very soon cease to be stocked. As the goods to which this Bill applies are those which the Minister regards as either the staple diet or the basic household necessities of the people of this country, one cannot expect her to pursue a course of action which would result in driving the commodities in question off the shelves of the shops, of whatever sort they may be.
§ It occurred to me, while searching for the grounds upon which Her Majesty's Government might resist this Amendment—and I must say that from their reaction it seems to me that they may have been more thorough in their research than I have—that they might be finding it difficult to define the term "at a loss". This is something which I shall be happy to help them with at a later stage if they feel it necessary, and I hope that we shall be able to arrive at a definition which will be satisfactory on both sides of the counter, as well as on both sides of your Lordships' Committee. But, in the meantime, I will rest simply upon saying that an insistence upon retaining powers which will enable her to make it impossible for the less well-off to buy a loaf of bread makes the Minister look more like Marie Antoinette than the benefactor of the people that she and all of us wish her to be. I shall therefore be interested to hear what it is that Her Majesty's Government are about to say on this question. I beg to move.
§ LORD JACQUES
At an earlier stage of this Bill, the noble Lord's colleagues in another place indicated their concern that an order put forward by the Secretary of State should not require anyone to sell their goods at a loss. I can assure the noble Lord that the Government have the fullest sympathy with the objectives of the Amendment. We fully accept the principle that the price-regulation powers 16 under this clause must be exercised with discretion and must avoid an unjustifiable impact on profits. It is certainly not the intention to use the power to drive firms into loss-making situations, or to create bankruptcies, or to erode profits unduly. I would particularly direct the attention of the Committee to subsection (5), which puts a time limit on the order-making powers. As the Bill stands at the moment, orders made under this clause cease to have effect on March 31, 1975. That is only nine months from now. It can be extended for a further twelve months to March 31, 1976, but that is the absolute limit. So we are talking about something which can have a duration of only one year and nine months.
Those dates have been selected deliberately, because they are the dates used by the past Administration in connection with the Counter-Inflation Act and the Price Code. They have been chosen deliberately so that the trader will have all the protections under the Price Code while the orders under this clause apply; that is to say, protections not only against losses but also against low profits. Of course, the Price Code operates case by case in relation to the circumstances of each individual firm. Since price-regulation orders will necessarily operate across the board, it would not be practicable to reproduce the Code's safeguards in equivalent form in the orders. It is necessary to set about it in a rather different way, by applying the same general principles to the content of the particular order.
As my colleagues in another place have already made clear, the Government propose to set prices which are reasonable for the generality of the trade affected. We shall fix prices in the light of the best possible information about the general circumstances of particular sections of the trade. The clause ensures that consultation with interested parties must take place before any order is made. Moreover, it gives sufficient flexibility to allow orders to take account of the different circumstances of shops of different size and different types. But the Government have gone further than this. In response to the representations which the noble Lord's colleagues made in another place, we introduced a new subsection, which is now subsection (7). This specifically requires the Secretary of State to look at 17 the circumstances of the trade in the goods concerned, and at the effect of any order on the profitability of those trades before it is made.
This will ensure that in making orders under this clause the Secretary of State will consider whether regulation of a price would give rise to a general risk of loss-making, or of unacceptably low profits. We have also had the voluntary agreement, and the Secretary of State has given an undertaking that so long as the agreement is working satisfactorily she will not use any powers under this clause except in the case of subsidised foods. I hope the noble Lord will accept that, for the reasons which I have explained, the additional provision in subsection (7) goes as far as we believe can reasonably be gone to meet the points he has made. In the light of the explanations I have given, I trust he will feel able to withdraw his Amendment.
§ LORD ELTON
If I may recapitulate, orders of this sort will be laid regarding subsidised foods only after lengthy consultation with interested parties, during which profitability will be considered as a respectable ingredient of trading, and a reasonable amount of profitability will be allowed to the traders. The noble Lord went further and said that different sorts of traders might be treated in different ways, which gives me grounds to hope that the small trader, whose position is very shaky at the moment, will be carefully considered on his own. If the noble Lord would confirm this and would allow me time to consider in greater detail what he has said, for which I am grateful, I should be able to withdraw this Amendment. But perhaps he would tell me whether I have understood correctly.
§ LORD JACQUES
We are fully aware that in the food trades there is, at one end, the small convenient shop—the shop where the customer can usually go to replenish supplies without any inconvenience of travelling—and, at the other end, the large supermarket which depends upon scale in order to reduce prices and attract trade. The supermarket needs a large catchment area, so that most of its customers have to travel; they travel to get low prices. We have that very much in mind, and consequently we have 18 Clause 5, which provides for a range of prices.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 3.18 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether Clause 2 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ LORD ABERDARE
May I make one point on Clause 2? I regret that I have not been able to give notice of it to the noble Lord because it has been drawn to my attention only very recently, but if he would be kind enough to consider it and perhaps let me know in due course, I would be very grateful. It arises under subsection (4)(a), which says:an order under paragraph (a) of that subsection may make provision whereby the price to be charged by a person is not to exceed his buying price as determined in accordance with the order by more than a margin so determined".I am told that this could give rise to difficulty for the vertically integrated wholesaler/retailer, either a company which is both wholesaler and retailer or an individual. In that case, they are buying as wholesalers and selling as retailers, but there is no intermediate sale within the one company when it is transferring the goods from the wholesale part of its business to the retail part, as there would be in the case of separate companies or separate individuals. If one were to regulate their margin under this subsection by reference to the price at which they buy as wholesalers, then clearly that would be most unfair on them.
A similar difficulty would arise in the case of separate wholesale and retail companies within a single group but under one single management. I want only to ensure that this situation will be taken into account when an order is made under this subsection, so that it will not be unfair on those who are both wholesalers and retailers. If the noble Lord cannot give me that assurance now, perhaps he would write to me in due course and give it to me.
§ LORD JACQUES
The point as I understand it, is that some retailers are retailers only and buy in relatively small quantities from wholesalers. But other 19 retailers are their own wholesalers. They buy in bulk and from their warehouse they supply several of their branches. They are able, because they are buying in bulk, to buy at lower prices. But they also have higher expenses because, having received the goods in bulk, they have to break down the bulk and distribute the goods to their branches. That I understand to be the position. It is an excellent point and I undertake unreservedly to draw it to the attention of my right honourable friend.
§ LORD ROYLE
I wonder whether my noble friend can help me as regards the new form of trading—"cash and carry"—which has arisen during recent years. Are such traders wholesalers, are they retailers, are they both, or are they neither? How are they affected by this subsection?
§ LORD JACQUES
From my observations, I would say that they are both. I have observed that they have in the store or warehouse—sometimes it is a warehouse rather than a store—at the same time, both the retail customer and the shopkeeper, so they are doing both retail and wholesale trade. How are they affected by this subsection? I should have thought that in selling at their prices for large quantities of "cash and carry" they are unlikely to be seriously affected.
§ Clause 2 agreed to.
§ Clause 3 [Additional powers of Price Commission to prevent or restrict price increases]:
§ 3.22 p.m.
LORD ABERDARE moved Amendment No. 3:
Page 6 line 4 after ("implemented") insert ("so long as such implementation had not occurred earlier than three months prior to the Secretary of State's direction.")
The noble Lord said: Clause 3 gives power to the Price Commission in certain wholly exceptional circumstances to prevent or restrict a price rise even though that rise is consistent with the general rules of the Price Code. At Second Reading, if I recollect correctly—because there is no Hansard available—the Government
said that just as the Minister may after consultation with the Commission allow a price rise in exceptional circumstances, even though it is inconsistent with the Price Code, so equally there should be a provision for disallowing a price rise in exceptional circumstances. I can see that there is some logic in that proposition. But what alarms me is the element, if not of retrospection then at least of retroaction in subsection (4) of this clause. It is perfectly satisfactory to start with when it says:
This section does not apply to any increase implemented before the passing of this Act";
but it goes on to say:
but, subject to that, applies both to a proposed increase and to an increase that has already been implemented;
§ So far as I am concerned, that is where the worry comes in. There is there no limit of time. The direction can be backdated to any time after the passing of the Act.
§ What the Amendment seeks to do is to limit the time of backdating to three months. It would limit the power of the Secretary of State to give a direction under this clause to price increases that had been implemented not more than three months before. Certainly that would seem to me to be a perfectly reasonable proposition. The procedures that have to be gone through under the section should certainly, I should have thought, be capable of completion well within three months. The Price Commission first has to satisfy the Secretary of State that there are exceptional circumstances justifying intervention and then, if the Secretary of State agrees, she has to consult with the firm concerned and perhaps with other interested persons, and then she may give a direction by Statutory Instrument. It would seem to me that three months is ample time after a price rise for the Price Commission to satisfy the Secretary of State and for the Secretary of State to complete her consultations. We all dislike anything to do with retrospection or retroaction. I know it is necessary here, but all I would suggest is that it would be reasonable at least to put a time limit on it, and in this Amendment I suggest three months. I beg to move.
§ VISCOUNT SIMON
I should like warmly to support what the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has said in proposing this 21 Amendment. This matter was referred to several times while the Bill was going through another place and it was referred to also on Second Reading here. It seems to me, as it does to the noble Lord, that three months is a reasonable time within which action could be taken if there are exceptional circumstances that require it to be taken, but that it is quite unfair for there to be a possibility, as there is under the Bill as at present drafted, for an almost indefinite time to pass and then for action to be taken requiring, as I understand it, a "pay back" of prices charged a long time ago.
§ BARONESS BIRK
This Amendment raises a point which was very thoroughly debated in another place, where the Government made it absolutely clear that firms need not expect to find themselves vulnerable to the new procedure for an indefinite period after every price increase. But here we are concerned with a procedure which can be initiated by the Price Commission bringing a particular case to the attention of the Secretary of State. If the Secretary of State is satisfied by the Price Commission that there are exceptional circumstances justifying intervention, then after consultation the Secretary of State is empowered to give a direction.
I am giving this background, although as I understand it the principle was accepted by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, because it is very pertinent to the whole question of the three months which has been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, and also by the noble Viscount, Lord Simon. If the Price Commission think it necessary to intervene in relation to a particular proposal they will do so as promptly as possible, and the considerations will be the same whether the Commission take the view that the increase is inconsistent with the Code and hence that the Commission's powers operate, or that while the increase is consistent with the Code there are such exceptional circumstances justifying intervention that the case should be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State under the new procedure in this clause.
The previous Administration evidently considered that it was unnecessary to specify a time limit within which the Commission must act to restrict a price increase under Section 6 of the Counter-Inflation 22 Act. Theoretically these powers are available indefinitely. In practice, of course, the Commission can normally be expected to reach a view on a proposal during the period in which it is before them under the pre-notification rules or as shortly afterwards as possible. Nobody has seriously suggested—and I am certainly not going to do so to-day—that the Price Commission will suddenly and for the first time direct their attention to a price increase effected without comments many months previously. They have certainly enough to do to keep pace with all the current proposals. Precisely the same considerations will apply in the future when the Commission will also be free to consider the applicability of this new provision.
The detailed proposal in this Amendment, which is the core of the Amendment, would provide that any direction relating to a completed price increase must be given within three months of the price going up. From what I have already said, I hope it is clear that the procedure will be invoked very rarely (which is why it is spelt out in exceptional cases), that it will be initiated and completed as quickly as possible and that it is unlikely that directions will have to be given in relation to completed price increases, and still less likely that they will relate to an increase completed many months previously.
Nevertheless, I must advise your Lordships against amending the Bill in the manner proposed for the following reasons: first, the Amendment could—and in certain circumstances undoubtedly would—put a premium on delay, for it could operate as an incentive to a firm to put up its prices as soon as the Price Commission initiated the procedure. The Secretary of State is quite properly required by subsection (2) to engage in extensive consultation before giving a direction. If Parliament sets a statutory time limit to the Secretary of State's action, the firm will have every incentive to raise its prices and drag out the consultative process, so that any direction would be out of time. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that it is in the interests of all concerned that the firm should defer implementing the price increase until the procedures have been completed. Secondly, there is some general difficulty about statutory time 23 limits of this nature, and we have seen this operating in quite different matters which have no connection at all with prices. Such limits tend to become regarded as the norm. Three months may be ample for the majority of cases, but, if that period is written into the Statute, it may be restrictive in a complex case and may tend to prolong the procedure in the simpler case.
It was no doubt with such considerations in mind that the previous Administration refrained from imposing any general time limit on the exercise of the Price Commission's powers under Section 6 of the Counter-Inflation Act in relation to a price increase which had already been implemented. Clause 3 of the Bill deals only with a special instance of that general case and, in the light of the explanation that I have given, I hope that the noble Lords opposite will not wish to press their Amendment.
In answer to the point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, that it is quite unfair for an almost indefinite time to be allowed, I hope that he will take the point that in some circumstances it could work either way: it could be unfair to restrict this time, and people could take advantage if this were done; on the other hand, it could mean that the Secretary of State would not have sufficient time for consultation. I think that one point upon which we all agree is that, if something of this nature is to operate, it is essential that the Secretary of State should have the opportunity to consult with everybody concerned.
§ LORD ABERDARE
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for having given me such a full answer on my Amendment and I must say that I found it convincing in places. I especially understand the point that it might put a premium on delay and that this would not be desirable. Like her, I hope and think that the possibility of this procedure being used is extremely remote. In view of what the noble Baroness has said, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 3 agreed to.
§ Clause 4 agreed to.24
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.