HL Deb 17 March 1980 vol 407 cc9-37

2.57 p.m.

Read 3a, with the amendments.

Clause 3 [Preliminary investigation by Director of possible anti-competitive practice]:

Lord TREFGARNEmoved Amendment No. 1: Page 4, line 43, at end insert ("; but nothing in this subsection shall prevent the Director from proceeding with a subsequent investigation, notwithstanding that it relates wholly or partly to the same matters.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it has been noticed—admittedly rather late in the day; and for that I apologise—that the provision of Clause 3(5) which enables the Secretary of State to veto a preliminary investigation by the Director General could he open to an unintended interpretation. It is the intention that the Secretary of State should be able to cancel a particular investigation but not that his veto should prevent all subsequent investigation of the same matters, however far into the future. Circumstances change and Governments have been known to change their minds. We therefore would not want a veto to prevent all future investigation. Unfortunately, on one reading of Clause 3(5), it would have this effect. This interpretation would be strengthened by contrast with Clause 7(2) where such an interpretation is explicitly ruled out where references to the MMCs are concerned. Therefore, we think it necessary to remove the ambiguity by making a similar explicit provision in Clause 3(5). I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 11 [References of public bodies and certain other persons to the Commission]:

Lord TREFGARNE moved Amendment No. 2: Page 15, line 38, leave out from first (" reference ") to (" is ") in line 40 and insert (" including any question whether, in relation to a matter falling within paragraph (a), (b) or (c) above, the person ").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, once more on behalf of my noble friend, this is a technical amendment which is intended to improve the drafting of Clause 11(1). As drafted, the clause permits the Secretary of State to require the commission to consider the public interest in relation to the subject of the reference generally—that is, in relation to the efficiency and costs the service provided and the possible abuse of a monopoly situation in the supply of goods or services by the person concerned. We have come to the conclusion that, in certain circumstances, this could impose too heavy a burden on the commission in the light of the timetable which they are required to meet under Clause 11(9). This amendment therefore provides that consideration of the public interest, may, if the Secretary of State so wishes, be confined to the specific questions which will be put to the commission in the terms of reference rather than to the general issues of efficiency and costs, et cetera. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 12 [Order following report under section 11]:

3.4 p.m.

Lord TREFGARNE moved Amendment No. 3: Page 18, line 32, leave out (" which ") and insert (" whom ").

The noble Lord said: I rise to move Amendment No. 3 and, at the same time to speak to Amendment No. 4. These are both minor technical amendments made necessary by amendments made by the Government on Report in connection with the references to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission of bus undertakings specified in Clause 11(3)(b) of the Bill. Amendment No. 3 merely corrects an error in grammar in Clause 12(4) by substituting"whom"for"which"in line 32. Amendment No. 4 reflects in the Long Title the effect of Amendment No. 15 made on Report, which substituted"person"for"body corporate"in Clause 11(3)(b), thus bringing partnerships and sole traders within the scope of investigation under that part of the Bill. I beg to move.


My Lords, I am slightly confused by the noble Lord because Amendment No. 4 is in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and others, and is not in his name.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Earl of CAITHNESSmoved Amendment No. 4:

Page 21, line 42, at end insert— (" () Before carrying out an investigation under section 3 above into any course of conduct being pursued by a person falling within section 11(3)(d) above the Director shall give notice as required by section 3(2)(a) above also to the relevant Minister and on making any competition reference arising from that investigation or varying such a reference under section 6(6) above the Director shall send a copy of the reference or, as the case may be, the variation to the relevant Minister.").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for speaking to this amendment and referring to it as a drafting amendment. That precisely sums up what I feel about it, too. As has been explained to your Lordships at length at both Committee and Report stages of this Bill, the relevant Minister—at the moment the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—has extensive powers under the Agricultural Marketing Act 1958 to make investigations into agricultural marketing boards.

Without wishing to repeat what has already been said, and as the Government have at no stage indicated their disapproval of this Act, it seems logical that the relevant Minister should at least be told by the Director of Fair Trading that he is about to investigate an alleged malpractice. The relevant Minister could be looking into the situation himself under the powers conferred upon him by the 1958 Act. The amendment therefore is one which seeks only to enable the existing legislation to work in closer harmony with this Bill. It reinforces the consultation procedure at an early stage to avoid duplication, increased bureaucracy and interdepartmental antagonism. On an agricultural matter, it must make sense for the relevant Minister to be advised of what is in the minds of those who have powers overlapping his specialist field. I beg to move.


My Lords, the purpose of Amendment No. 4, and the other two amendments which follow it, is to give the relevant Minister, as my noble friend has explained, equal status with the Secretary of State in relation to various functions in the Bill. The first amendment, as my noble friend said, requires the Director General to give notice of investigations and references into anti-competitive practice by an agricultural marketing hoard to the relevant Minister as well as the Secretary of State. There is no provision in the Bill for that at present, although it would be normal administrative practice for all concerned.

I hope that your Lordships will agree that we can discuss these three amendments at the same time because they all address similar points. Perhaps my noble friend disagrees?


No, my Lords

The LORD CHANCELLOR (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, without the consent of the House, I do not think that my noble friend is entitled to speak to the three amendments together. I thought that I heard a note of dissent from those sitting behind him.


My Lord, my noble and learned friend is right and I shall therefore confine my remarks to the first amendment. I shall in due course ask your Lordships to resist the second and third amendments in the name of my noble friend. As for this amendment, it is not positively objectionable on its own; it would save the Secretary of State for Trade and his officials from having to inform the relevant agricultural Minister and his officials of the fact that the Director General has initiated an investigation. It would place this task directly upon the Director General. The Government are satisfied that Clause 15 would work adequately as it stands; but, if my noble friend feels that it is the task of Parliament to define who should see every piece of paper, then the Government would have no particular objection if my noble friend decided to press his amendment.


My Lords, is my noble friend accepting this amendment?


No, my Lords.


Then, my Lords, I am afraid you will have to be bored by me again. The purpose of the amendment is consumer-orientated. As the Bill stands, complaint could be made by the Director General of Fair Trading to the Secretary of State about an agricultural marketing board's uncompetitive action. Having submitted the complaint, the Secretary of State can, in his wisdom, decide to take no action and the matter will end. The effect of our amendment would be that the Director General of Fair Trading would have to consult the Minister of Agriculture as as well as the Secretary of State, which would mean that the Minister of Agriculture could advise the Secretary of State on the best method to adopt, perhaps, as we have suggested to the House before, through the Agricultural Marketing Act. Moreover, the Minister of Agriculture is much more experienced in investigating——


My Lords, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor very rightly said that I should speak only to the first amendment in the name of my noble friend, which I did; but my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley is now speaking to the others. That is what it sounds like.


My Lords, I am sorry and I will take the advice of the House on this. I am speaking to this amendment. I will speak to the other two in a moment, altogether as your Lordships wish. The Minister of Agriculture has more experience in investigating complaints and that is why we wish him to be consulted. He has more experience through the workings of the 1958 Act. As the Bill stands, the Minister of Agriculture could be totally unaware of a complaint made about the agricultural marketing boards, which are his concern. He should realise it if there is a complaint going about. I have some more to say about what has happened in this Bill but I shall leave that to the next amendment. I hope my noble friend will accept this amendment.


My Lords, I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley. I am extremely disappointed with the response that the Minister has given to noble Lords who have raised the matter and with the response of the Government generally. It is an extremely important point. If the noble Lord informs the House that the Minister of Agriculture will be aware of what takes place, I would tend to be rather less discontent than I am now. The thought that the agricultural marketing boards are going to be subjected to this procedure without the immediate and direct knowledge of the Minister of Agriculture seems very unreasonable indeed. If we are going to get co-operation in the agricultural industry, and if the country is going to get the co-operation of the agricultural industry—and that seems very important indeed—the Government must be more reasonable. After all, if the agricultural marketing boards are responsible to anyone, they are responsible to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and not to any other Minister.

It does appear that it is tempting providence and also insulting to the agricultural industry and to the Minister concerned to disregard him. I may be mistaken: it may well be that the noble Lord who replies will be able to inform the House that the Minister of Agriculture will be informed, and informed forthwith. But if he is unable to tell the House that, then I am bound to say that this is a very important matter which the House must think about very carefully. Otherwise, the agricultural marketing boards, upon which we all depend for the efficient organisation of the commodities for which they are responsible, will not be doing their job as effectively as they should. I hope that the noble Lord can give a rather more satisfactory answer than he has given hitherto.

Baroness SEEAR

If I understood him aright, the Minister said rather contemptuously that it was being suggested in this amendment that there was being written into the Act where every bit of paper was to go. I would say: surely this is not a question of where every bit of paper is to go, but where this particular very important piece of paper should go. After all, some of the most important legislation that goes through this House could be described as"bits of paper ".


My Lords, I think that we ought to look at this from a rather broader position than just from the point of view of the Milk Marketing Board. It seems to me that there are a great many other public bodies covered by Clause 11(3) of the Bill to which the same arguments could very well apply. I find it difficult to see why the Milk Marketing Board should particularly seek the custody and safe treatment of their own Minister when, for instance, other public boards that are in competition with other sources—as, for instance, the railways who arc in competition with other forms of transport—have not sought to have their Minister covered in this respect.


The answer, my Lords, to the noble Lord is that they are not the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture.


Yes, my Lords, indeed; but there are other sponsoring ministeries who deal with other people, and it seems to me that what is being lost sight of—and this is the important point—is that the Milk Marketing Board are in competition with other traders and it seems unreasonable, under the heading"competition in a Competition Bill. that one particular group of traders, to wit, the Milk Marketing Board, should have any preferential treatment—if it is preferential treatment—in being able to involve their own sponsoring Ministry. You can say that it is not preferential treatment: in which case what is the point of the amendment? Therefore, my Lords, I wonder whether this amendment and the following ones are really necessary.


My Lords, I should very much like to support the noble Lord who has just spoken in what he has said. It seems to me that this Bill involves principles which should apply to the whole economy. I think it is quite unnecessary to write into the Bill what may be a matter of courtesy, having regard to the administrative arrangements in Whitehall, that any particular Minister need be informed as regards the implications of this all-embracing Bill. I am reminded in this connection of something which I heard at a very high official meeting during the reconstruction period after the war. It was said by Lord Keynes. In regard to agriculture, he appealed to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and said:"All Ministries of Agriculture are a little bit of a racket, aren't they?"

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, I had not intended to deploy my full arguments on this amendment, but the attitude of my noble friends clearly requires me to say a little more. The Bill, as far as anti-competitive practices are concerned, enables the Director General to do certain things and the Secretary of State to do certain other things. We have said before that wherever it is appropriate the Secretary of State will consult the appropriate sponsor department. This applies as much to agricultural questions as to those involving industry, commerce and local authorities.

As far as the powers in Clauses 11 and 12 are concerned, the Secretary of State has certain power to make references and to act following upon references. In addition, sponsor Ministers also have certain powers to act on a report of the commission. The only exception that is made to these general provisions has been for agricultural marketing boards which, in the opinion of the Government, merit a degree of special treatment in view of the agricultural marketing legislation itself. That is why Clause 15 of the Bill makes a number of special provisions to allow the order-making powers of the Agricultural Marketing Act to be used following a report on a board which is subject to that Act. This is because the Agricultural Marketing Act already contains provisions which allow order-making powers to be used in certain circumstances. Equally, because of the existing agricultural marketing legislation, Clause 15 has been extended to provide for consultation between the Secretary of State and the relevant agriculture Minister before the Secretary of State exercises his powers. In addition, in relation to undertakings under Clause 9, again because of the agricultural marketing legislation, there is special provision for the Secretary of State and the relevant agriculture Minister to act jointly.

I would remind your Lordships that in addition to these provisions in the Bill we have repeatedly made it clear that the normal process of consultation between Ministers and between departments will take place for agricultural marketing boards, as for every other section of industry or commerce. I hope that, with this further explanation, my noble friend will not press his amendment.


My Lords, I think the point was nicely put by my noble friend on the Front Bench. He said that the 1958 Act had similar powers to the powers under this Bill. It is for this reason that at this very early stage, and in order to save any duplication and bureaucracy, the Minister of Agriculture, who can quite easily initiate investigations under the 1958 Act, is told of the wish of the Director General of Fair Trading, and to put the responsibility on to the Director General of Fair Trading rather than the Secretary of State seems to me to be eminently logical in this context. Therefore, I cannot fail to disagree with my noble friend and those who spoke against the amendment. I think this is something which the House ought to consider again, because I believe it to be both logical and in the best interests of the Bill.

3.18 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 4) shall be agreed to?


My Lords, Tellers for the Not-Contents have not been appointed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 50. A Division therefore cannot take place and I declare that the Contents have it.

3.22 p.m.

Lord STANLEY of A LDERLEY moved Amendment No. 5:

Page 21, line 42, at end insert— (" ( ) In relation to every investigation under section 3 above into any course of conduct being pursued by a person falling within section 11(3)(d) above, every competition reference which specifies such a person as the person whose activities are to be investigated by the Commission and every variation of such a reference under section 6(6) above the powers conferred on the Secretary of State by section 3(5) or, as the case may be, section 7(2) or (3) above shall be exercisable also by the relevant Minister who in the exercise of those powers shall observe the requirements of sections 3(6) and 7(5) above.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Caithness who is in the Lobby, perhaps I should start on this amendment. The main reason for supporting this amendment is the same reason as the Government gave when they considered it necessary to add subsection (3) to Clause 15—a point just made by my noble friend Lord Trefgarne. Again, like the last amendment, this one will avoid unnecessary bureaucracy between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Trade and will enable an investigation to be held under the Agricultural Marketing Act, if that Act is thought to he a better vehicle for investigation.

I am not going to be robbed of my little story again this time, and I am afraid that I must relate to the House what has happened to this Bill since it started in another place, because it makes quite interesting reading. I am still convinced that, as a result. the. Government have not appreciated the role and the particular position of the agricultural marketing boards under the Agricultural Marketing Act 1958. My noble friend Lord Mottistone has not done so. That is an Act which a Conservative Government proposed and it has stood the test of time since 1958.

Perhaps I may enlighten your Lordships, and say that when this Bill first appeared in another place no order-making powers were included in it. It might have been better, certainly from my point of view, though perhaps rather less than honest, if that had not been noticed. However, it was noticed and, having been noticed, the Government tabled amendments to have order-making powers made under the Fair Trading Act 1973.

The next chapter in the story came when it was pointed out that such order-making powers could be better made under the Agricultural Marketing Act and, in fairness, the Government graciously accepted such an amendment. However, the effect of the amendment was that the Minister of Agriculture had powers to make orders, but the Secretary of State had to seek undertakings. I am glad to say, once again, that the Government accepted that such a situation was, in my language, plain crazy and in the Report stage in another place they again amended the Bill to have a power to seek undertakings jointly shared between the Secretary of State and the Minister of Agriculture.

I hope that I have shown your Lordships the moral of my story. I would call it a bureaucratic fairy tale. Unfortunately, it is a true comedy of errors which, in fairness, the Government have appreciated and rectified as they spotted the problem. I therefore hope that your Lordships will support this amendment and Amendment No. 6—or this one if I must speak to it alone, although what I am saying applies to both—in order to make sense and to cut bureaucratic and time-wasting clerical time. I am encouraged that the story that I have related shows the Government, by their attitude to the last amendment, to be flexible enough to accept amendments and alterations to improve legislation. I hope that a similar spirit will continue throughout. My Lords, I beg to move.


My Lords, I support all the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, and I say again that I am extremely disappointed at the Government. Their obstinacy is even greater than I thought it was. This is a reasonable case. What we are saying is that it is wrong for the agricultural marketing boards to be subjected to two procedures. They are already subject to the procedures of the 1958 Act. This Bill would make them subject to an additional procedure.

From everything that the noble Lord the Minister has said, it appears that there is no great anxiety that the Minister of Agriculture should be brought into this; or should, at least, be brought into it as little as possible. The attitude of the Government throughout has been that there is something out of place in the operations of the agricultural marketing boards.

When the point was made in Committee when we last debated this matter, I asked whether there was any evidence to support the conclusion that the agricultural marketing boards should be subjected to these additional procedures. The Minister, in his reply, said that there was no evidence, but he asked me whether there was evidence to the contrary. This introduces a very alien doctrine to this House—the European doctrine that the defendant is guilty before he is proved innocent—and it is on that basis that the Minister is now making his case.

I am bound to refer to the short speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Robbins. I was surprised at it, because I have always had great respect for him and for his fairness in argument. But at the very end of the short debate, he quoted some words and said that the Ministry of Agriculture was, in fact, a little bit of a racket. That was the case of the noble Lord, Lord Robbins. He diminishes considerably in my eyes if that is the way he seeks to prove the case. I am not aware that the Ministry of Agriculture is a little hit of a racket, nor, I hope, is any Member of this House on either side; nor are the agricultural marketing boards a little bit of a racket.

This country owes a great debt of gratitude to the agricultural marketing boards and, not least, to the Milk Marketing Board. A good deal of rubbish has been spoken about the Milk Marketing Board being a monopoly of some kind or other. The fact is that of all the boards, organisations, companies or firms in this country, it is the only one, to my knowledge, that has kept the level of prices down to a reasonable figure, contrary to every other commodity that I am aware of. I repeat what I said earlier, that the debt of this country arid of Parliament to the agricultural marketing bards is very substantial indeed. Therefore, I strongly advise the House that it should not subject the agricultural marketing boards to this additional machinery. It is unnecessary, there is no case for it, and the Government have not made a case. They have not produced one tittle of evidence to support their argument. If the House is honest it will vote against the Government on this amendment.


My Lords, I deeply regret that I have lowered myself in respect of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. I do not intend to say anything in my defence, save to point out that some of the deepest problems with which the world economy and the European economy are now confronted flow from the extravagant petting given to agriculture. I speak, and I am proud to do so, as the son of a farmer.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I wish to point out that the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, is being grossly unfair. By implication, he has condemned British agriculture because of the faults of European agriculture. The fact is that, compared with European agriculture, British agriculture, of which he is representative as the son of a farmer, has performed magnificently in the last 25 years. Indeed, from the point of view of production, productivity and efficiency, it has performed superbly compared with any other British industry. I must take the noble Lord to task in the unfair advantage he has taken in what he knows to be an illogical argument.


My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend Lord Cledwyn. I am surprised that the agricultural boards should be challenged as they have been. I go back, in theory, to the days of Dr. Addison.


My Lords, what is the noble Lord debating?


My Lords, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, not to worry. I know that his father was once a Socialist Member of this House, but that is another matter. I am making the point that my noble friend Lord Cledwyn has made a reasonable and sensible case

The Milk Marketing Boards of this country are the admiration of farmers throughout the world, including Europe. Therefore, let there not be any challenge in a bitter sense. I was surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, who normally is so objective, should have spoken as he did. Agriculture owes so much to the marketing structure, and I hope that it will always be strengthened.


My Lords, perhaps we may come back to the general picture rather than to the pure farming picture. The main point relates to fairness to all. We are in the competition business. As the Milk Marketing Board is a trader, it competes with other traders. We are asking for the same system for all. I shall not redeploy my other argument. All I shall say is that I am sad that the Government shot my fox on the last occasion—and at the end of the hunting season, too.


My Lords, the effect of this amendment is to give the relevant Minister the right to veto an investigation on his own initiative and, by implication, regardless of the views of the Secretary of State for Trade. The doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility renders this amendment not only unnecessary, but thoroughly objectionable. This point emerges strongly from this amendment. We have one Government —not a Government for agriculture, a Government for industry and a Government for the consumers. The implication of the amendment is to enable one Minister to exercise a power of veto where another Minister would not be prepared to exercise that power.

Therefore. I very much hope that my noble friend will say that he does not wish to cast doubt on the principle of ministerial responsibility, which I am sure lie both understands and accepts. If he does not do so, the only arguments in favour of this amendment relate to administrative convenience. I assure your Lordships that from that point of view the Government are satisfied that Clause 15. as it stands, fulfils this purpose.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, because I appreciate that there is collective responsibility. On the other hand, I do not think it is the job of the Secretary of State for Trade to he totally au fait with the agricultural global package.


My Lords, may I ask the House to allow me to ask my noble friend whether the Minister of Agriculture is wholly au fait, as my noble friend puts it, with the principles of competition and fair trading?


I think with the help of his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade, yes; and I am sure that he is in his own right, too. I think that in this case the Minister of Agriculture should be given the right to say: No. this is the wrong Act under which to make any investigation or reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The right Act is the 1958 Act because it is more comprehensive and covers the extra points with which I wish to deal. If that power is not given to the Minister of Agriculture, there could be great duplication of work, and perhaps the wrong type of investigation when the time comes.

However, as the Government were so kind on our first amendment, perhaps we can he equally kind to them on this one in the hope that they will be kind to us on our third one. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.36 p.m.

Lord STANLEY of ALDER LEY moved Amendment No. 6:

Page 21, line 42, at end insert— (" ( ) The Secretary of State shall not make a reference to the Commission under section 11(1) above of any question relating to a person falling within section 11(3)(d) above nor vary such a reference under section 11(6) above except acting jointly with the relevant Minister.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am afraid that we got rather out of schedule because of the trick played by the Government in not nominating tellers on the previous amendment that came up for Division. However, it seems that we are now three-all and doing rather better than the team which I suspect the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and I supported on Saturday. The main purpose of this amendment is to cut out unnecessary and wasteful bureaucracy between Government departments. The simplest solution would have been to remove boards from Clause 11, but the Government, for reasons unknown, would not accept such a solution. I am afraid that this amendment is a compromise.

The effect of the amendment would be that before an agricultural marketing board was referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, it would be necessary for both the Secretary of State for Trade and the Minister of Agriculture to take such action jointly. This would mean no unnecessary duplication of research by either the Department of Trade or the Ministry of Agriculture. It would make possible an early decision on whether the agricultural marketing boards should be investigated under the Bill or under the Agricultural Marketing Act. Therefore, it would involve only one Ministry instead of two departments doing their own thing, completely oblivious of what the other was doing. There is exactly similar wording on joint action in the Fair Trading Act. Far be it from me to try to improve on the wording of a Conservative Act of Parliament.

Finally, I wish to adopt the point made in a leader in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, a newspaper which my family does not normally allow me to read. It made the point that the great problem facing the Government was to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy. Here is a start, albeit a small one, that might save some time and money—or is it just the private sector and industry which have to contract and not central Government?


My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, in the reasonable case he has made. I do not think I have ever been in a position of losing such a good case as in respect of this matter. The case for the agricultural marketing boards and against the Government's action under the Bill is overwhelming. It is a great tragedy that the Government have seen fit to persist in their obduracy up to this very last point in this legislation. I feel that on this amendment I stand in the last ditch, to coin an agricultural phrase. Here I propose to stand without retreating any further, but I hope that the Government will see reason. If the Government do not concede this point, it will mean that the agricultural marketing boards will be subject to the 1958 Act and its machinery, which was set up by a Conservative Government in 1958. It is their machinery that we are by implication criticising by introducing this provision. A reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, on top of that, would be highly unsatisfactory and something which should be resisted at all costs.


My Lords, as one who had something to do with agriculture in Scotland at the time the marketing boards were being set up, may I say a word about this. Nobody impugns the good intentions of marketing boards; they are given, by and large, responsibilities and they carry them out very well. But people become accustomed to certain types of organisation and certain practices and they go on with them after they have ceased to have the effect that they were designed to have. In other words, they have become outdated. This can more often be perceived from outside the organisation than from within it. It is for this reason that it is a good thing that the Secretary of State should have the power to have these practices investigated at a given point. It may not always be right, for example, to fine people for growing more potatoes than they are allowed. That is a very restrictive practice and it is one which it might be quite proper at a certain stage for the Government to look into.

I do not in the slightest mind this amendment, provided that it means only that the agriculture Minister should be aware of what is happening. if he disagrees, obviously the matter will go to the Cabinet and the Cabinet will decide. Then the agriculture Minister, if he loses in the Cabinet, jolly well has to agree, and that will be done jointly. If it works like this—fine. But if, as my noble friend said, it means that the agriculture Minister is going to have a veto, then I would not agree with it at all. At that stage I will leave it to my noble friend to explain.


My Lords, I have already deployed broadly the same argument for the last two amendments and will now proceed further along the same line in connection with this amendment. If noble Lords think that this Government or their predecessor would not follow the principle of collective ministerial responsibility in respect of agricultural marketing boards, I must ask them to consider the implications of these doubts. If collective ministerial responsibility does not operate as it should, then the Government would have to revise wholesale the legislation which they administer to ensure that every Minister who has a legitimate and direct interest in a particular problem is entitled to be consulted or to act separately or jointly with the Minister who has the prime responsibility.

Let me give an example. The agricultural marketing legislation contains provisions for the protection of consumers, but it makes no provision for the Minister with general responsibility for consumer affairs to be consulted, let alone to exercise independent powers in relation to marketing boards. I do not hear the noble Lords moving the amendment clamouring for the Agricultural Marketing Act to be amended to allow this. Indeed, I must make it clear that I do not think it should be, because I believe in collective ministerial responsibility and co-operation. I am satisfied that where the interests of other Ministers are directly affected, this system will operate to ensure that their views are sought and that a decision acceptable to the Government as a whole is arrived at. I hope that my noble friend will not press his amendment.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend why it was that in the Fair Trading Act the words"joint action"were inserted and not just the word"consultation "? If the reasons that he has just given to us apply now, surely they applied then. If a matter is raised under the Fair Trading Act, joint action has to he taken. I can foresee that there will be arguments as to whether it should come under that Act—joint action where the Minister of Agriculture puts his name to the same bit of paper—or under this one where it is only the Secretary of State. Perhaps my noble friend could answer that question.


My Lords, I think I did answer my noble friend—I am speaking, I hope, with the leave of the House—when I spoke to an earlier amendment. The circumstances are not quite the same. Probably I had better rest my case on that. The circumstances are indeed different because the point at which the consultation takes place under the Agricultural Marketing Act is different.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I put a final question to him which I think will assist the House in coming to a conclusion? If the 1958 Act is as unsatisfactory as he now seems to imply that it is, why has it taken 22 years for the noble Lord and his Government to decide to introduce these new additional measures?


My Lords, I intervene only briefly, because I have said it before. What we want is equal treatment for all. Why should there by anything special for the farmers? The 1958 Act is 22 years old. Maybe it is a bit old. That seems to me to he the answer.


My Lords, with respect, the answer to that is that the other companies——

Several noble Lords: Order, order!


My Lords, we are getting a little bit out of order. There is a very firm rule that no noble Lord may speak more than once at any stage other than at the Committee stage unless he is asking a question of my noble friend before he sits down.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for his assistance. Before he sits down, will the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, agree that the other companies, boards and organisations to which he refers are not subject to the provisions of the 1958 Act?


My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, would like me to answer that point—why we have not done it for 22 years—the answer is that this Bill is to promote competition and to regulate anti-competitive practices which are found to be against the public interest. I could ask the noble Lord why his Government did not bring it in.


My Lords, as I moved the amendment, I think I am in order to finish it. My noble friend Lord Drumalbyn pointed out that outside organisations should look at our affairs, if one calls the agricultural marketing boards my affairs. May I ask him to look very carefully at what the committees of investigation or at what the consumers' associations on those boards do. When he has a chance to do so, perhaps he will look at them. They are very powerful bodies; certainly they arc not puppets. Therefore, I think that we are getting outside organisations to look at our affairs.

The other point I want to make is that we are not asking that the Minister of Agriculture should have a veto. I accept entirely that, at the end of the day, if there are comings and goings, it will be a Cabinet responsibility or a ministerial responsibility. What I am trying to do by moving this amendment is to stop all the palaver beforehand. Obviously when something comes up for investigation or for any action to be taken it does not go straight to the Minister; it goes to somebody much further on. If they know that, at the end of the day, this is there, the whole process will be simplified. I am afraid that on this occasion I cannot accept the Government's answer. I shall have to follow my little parable and try to"convert the try"which my noble friend started earlier on. My Lords, I beg to move.

3.50 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 6) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 70; Not-Contents, 77.

Airedale, L. Foot, L. Noel-Baker, L.
Airey of Abingdon, B. Gaitskell, B. Oram, L.
Amherst, E. Glasgow, E. Peart, L.
Aylestone, L. Gordon-Walker, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Balogh, L. Goronwy-Roberts, L. Ritchie-Calder, L.
Banks, L. Granville of Eye, L. Sainsbury, L.
Barrington, V. Hampton, L. Seear, B.
Birk,B. Harris of Greenwich, L. Segal, L.
Blyton, L. Hatch of Lusby, L. Sempill, Ly.
Boothby, L. Henderson, L. Sharpies, B.
Boston of Faversham, L. Henley, L. Shinwell, L.
Brockway, L. Houghton of Sowerby, L. Stamp, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Hylton-Foster, B. Stanley of Alderley, L.
Byers, L. Janner, L. [Teller.]
Caithness, E. Kennet, L. Stedman, B.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Kilmarnock, L. Stone, L.
[Teller.] Kirkhill, L. Strabolgi, L.
Collison, L. Leatherland, L. Strauss, L.
Craigavon, V. Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Taylor of Mansfield, L.
Crook, L. Listowel, E. Wallace of Coslany, L.
David, B. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
Davies of Penrhys, L. Lloyd of Kilgerran, L. Wells-Pestell, L.
De Freyne, L. Lovell-Davis, L. Wigoder, L.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Mishcon, L. Wynne-Jones, L.
Adeane, L. Effingham, E. McFadzean, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Emmet of Amberley, B. Mancroft, L.
Allerton, L. Energlyn, L. Margadale, L.
Alport, L. Exeter, M. Merrivale, L.
Ampthill, L. Ferrers, E. Morris, L.
Auckland, L. Fulton, L. Mottistone, L.
Avon, E. Gainford, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Balfour of Inchrye, L. Galloway, E. Newall, L.
Barnby, L. Gisborough, L. Norfolk, D.
Bellwin, L. Gowrie, E. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Belstead, L. Grimston of Westbury, L. Redmayne, L.
Bessborough, E. Grimthorpe, L. Renton, L.
Birdwood, L. Hailsham of Staint Marylebone, Robbins, L.
Caccia, L. L. (L. Chancellor.) Roberthall, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Halsbury, E. St. Davids, V.
Carrington, L. (A Principal Han worth, V. St. Just, L.
Secretary of Stale.) Hives, L. Sandford, L.
Clancarty, E. Hornsby-Smith, B. Sandys, L.[Teller.]
Clvvyd, L. Ilchester, E. Smith, L.
Cottesloe, L. Kinloss, Ly. Spens, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Kinnaird, L. Trefgarne, L.
Daventry, V. Lloyd, L. Trenchard, V.
Davidson, V. Long, V. Trumpington, B.
de Clifford, L. Loudoun, C. Vickers, B.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Lucas of Chilworth, L. Vivian, L.
Derwent, L. Lyell, L. Waldegrave, E.
Drumalbyn, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amend-merit disagreed to accordingly.

3.58 p.m.

Lord TREFGARNE moved Amendment No. 7: Page 22, line 8, leave out (" in ") and insert (" for ").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is consequential upon an earlier amendment. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 26 [Suspension of declarations under Section 1(3) of Restrictive Trade Practices Act 1976 pending revision of agreements]:

Lord TREFGARNE moved Amendment No. 8: Page 28, line 7, after (" after ") insert (" which ").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this minor technical amendment is to amend Clause 11(4)(b) of the Bill so that the relevant department described there is the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 30 [Exemption of copyright agreements from Restrictive Trade Practices Acts]:

Lord TREFGARNE moved Amendment No. 9: Page 31, line 18, after (" subsists ") insert (" or will subsist ").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is, I hope, uncontentious. It renders Clause 26(4) of the Bill as drafted grammatically correct and ensures that the clause has the meaning that it was intended to have. The amendment does not affect the intended operation of the clause. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord TREFGARNE moved Amendment No. 10: Page 31, line 27. after ("subsists ") insert ("or will subsist ").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I will speak to Amendments Nos. 10, 11 and 12 together.


My Lords, the noble Lord is one out.


My Lords, I have got my numbering out of order. I apologise for this disorganisation, which is due to the printing difficulties we suffered this morning with regard to the Marshalled List. Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 are clearly consequential on Amendment No. 9. They are technical amendments. It is intended that Clause 30 of the Bill should confer exemption from the restrictive practices legislation on all agreements relating solely to copyright whether such agreements relate to existing works or works yet to be be produced. I am advised that there is some doubt whether paragraph (2) of paragraph 5A actually achieves this object. The amendment is designed to remove that uncertainty. I beg to move.


My Lords, these three amendments are uncontentious, and I am glad that the noble Lord has removed any ambiguity that may surround them.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord TREFGARNE moved Amendment No. 11: Page 31, line 45, after (" subsists ") insert (` or will subsist ").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 33 [Short-title, interpretation, repeals, commencement and extent]:

4.2 p.m.

Lord AIREDALE moved Amendment No. 12: Page 32, line 35, after (" provides ") insert (— and subject to section 23 of this Act ").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Clause 33 is the interpretation clause and it operates by reference to the interpretation sections of two earlier Acts. It says, among other things, that if you want to know the meaning of the"supply of services ", you are to look at Section 137 of the Fair Trading Act 1973. But what it omits to say is that that definition of"supply of services"has already been amended by Clause 23 of this Bill.

The purpose of this amendment is to insert a signpost to warn the reader that this is so. When I moved a similar amendment on Report I was told that the amendment was not strictly necessary, and I agree with that in the sense that without it the clause is not defective. But this Bill, like many Acts of Parliament, is full of useful signposts. Take, for instance, subsection (6) of Clause 12, which refers to four different sections of an earlier Act, and after each reference it gives in brackets an explanation of what each section referred to is about. The draftsman could have said:"I am not going to clutter my subsection with a lot of descriptive matter about sections of earlier Acts; people can look that up for themselves ". But Parliament says:"Let the Statutes be readily intelligible and let signposts be inserted where they are useful to the reader ". This signpost, warning people about this definition having been amended by an earlier clause of the Bill, is in my submission a useful signpost, bearing in mind that people do not read Acts of Parliament from begin- ning to end; they dart about among the sections, and it is very easy to fail to remember what an earlier section said when you are reading the interpretation section at the end. The Government did not see fit to accept one single Opposition amendment, either in Committee or on Report, and there were a great many of them. This is their last chance. I beg to move.


My Lords, once again I want to assure the noble Lord that the Government sympathise with his aim of improving the clarity and intelligibility of legislation. We recognise that the amendment is intended to help the layman, and even perhaps the practising lawyer, to avoid pitfalls in the interpretation of the Bill. I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord will accept that we are not just being obstinate if we see difficulties in his proposal. As he said, his amendment is a slight variant on the earlier version that he put forward at an earlier stage. I am afraid the change is not for the better. The new wording of the amendment implies that Clause 23 of the Bill qualifies the application of Section 137 of the Fair Trading Act. This is misleading, since Clause 23 in fact makes a textual amendment to that section which applies without qualification. The noble Lord's original wording was actually better.

I turn to the main point at issue. Our problem is that we must be concerned not only with the immediate effect of the amendment on the intelligibility of a particular provision, but also with its effect on the interpretation of the Bill as a whole. Ultimately, what matters is the interpretation of the Bill when enacted by the courts. The courts will not read our debates; they will read the Act itself. If they find that the Act gives a different treatment to points which might be expected to receive identical treatment, they may well read a quite unintended significance into the distinction.

In this case there is a general rule in the Interpretation Act 1978 that any reference to an earlier enactment is to be taken to be a reference to that enactment as amended by subsequent legislation, including the legislation in which the reference itself appears. This general rule applies unless there is some indication of a contrary intention. As the noble Lord said, the Interpretation Act does not prevent the use of cross references of the kind contained in his amendment. It merely makes them unnecessary. But we have to consider the implication of a departure from the general rule. If in this one provision we explicitly point out that we are referring to an enactment in its amended form, this might be taken by the courts as an indication that in other cases, where we make no such explicit cross references, we intend to refer to the enactment in its unamended form. I cannot say whether it is likely that a court would take this interpretation, but we cannot be sure that they would not; we do not think it worth taking this risk. I regret, therefore, that I must advise the House against accepting the amendment, or perhaps the noble Lord will not press it.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for having taken a great deal of trouble over this. I shall have great pleasure in studying in Hansard what he has said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

In the Title:

4.9 p.m.

Lord TREFGARNE moved Amendment No. 13: Line 5, leave out (" bodies corporate ") and insert (" persons ").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is consequential upon Amendment No. 3, which I inadvertently moved as Amendment No. 4. In the Long Title it reflects the effect of Amendment No. 15 made on Report, which substituted"persons for"body corporate"in Clause 11(3)(b), thus bringing partnerships and sole traders within the scope of investigations under that part of the Bill. My Lords, I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass. May I just make one observation. I do not wish to go again into the detailed provisions of the Bill. With regard to the Price Commission, there is one point which should be placed on record: the Government are aware that some disquiet has been expressed about the continuing confidentiality of records still in the hands of the Price Commission. When the Commission is abolished all its remaining files will become the property of the Secretary of State. They will not be available for public inspection until 30 years have elapsed, in accordance with the provisions of the Public Records Acts. During that period it is not the intention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade to allow the material to be made available to the public or to the Office of Fair Trading; nor is it his department's intention to requisition any of these files for its own use or to let other departments requisition them. If, exceptionally, these arrangements need to be modified, the CBI will be consulted beforehand. I trust that that explanation will set at rest any fears which have been raised on this subject. I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.— (Lord Trefgarne.)


My Lords, the Bill will doubtless receive the agreement of the House. I should like to raise a matter with the Minister and if he cannot answer today perhaps he will be good enough to write to me. I should like to know at what stage in the previous progress of the Bill the following point, which I am informed is not now included in the Bill, was raised. I am referring to a matter which affects every shareholder in every public company that publicly reports its figures. It is within the knowledge of all of your Lordships that there is not infrequently reference in percentage figures to the performance of the year reported on by comparison with the previous year. Often those percentages are in low figures. It is obvious that, in times of high inflation and the debasement of the currency, such low figures mislead the shareholders. Indeed, there are many shareholders who are relatively ignorant of the arrangements with regard to public company accounting, in spite of the fact that there must have been many references in the course of the Bill to revision of accountancy practice. If a shareholder sees a 4 per cent. or a 6 per cent. increase in a period of 18 per cent. inflation, and a debasement of the currency to that degree, it is obvious that what appears to be an improvement is, in fact, a deterioration of the conditions of the company. I claim that that is misleading to all shareholders. I am perplexed about the point at which that matter was raised and rejected in the course of the Bill.


My Lords, I have a sad duty to perform because I have to scatter a handful of earth on the coffin of price control. The Bill not only abolishes the Price Commission, but effectively removes from the Secretary of State and the Government any responsibility for price control. Only under extreme conditions can the Secretary of State give directions for a price increase to be investigated.

The relevant clause, Clause 13, is so tightly drawn that the possibility of the Secretary of State giving a direction is remote. Like a group of political Pontius Pilates the Government wash their hands of responsibility, although by their own financial policies they have helped almost to double inflation in 10 months.

It is particularly to be regretted that, although during the passage of the Bill we have had soothing bromides from Ministers, no specific reference is made in the Bill to the right of consumers or approved consumer organisations to make representations on prices or anti-competitive practices to the Secretary of State or the Director General of Fair Trading.

Great faith in the virtue of competition is displayed by the Government in this Bill. Competition, I agree, can reduce prices in a situation of reasonable supply. Competition, on the other hand, increases prices in a situation of short supply. Therefore, there is not a complete answer. The growth of supermarkets and hypermarkets is already creating difficulty and will spell doom to the small trader facing, as he does, high interest rates and increased rates and rents. I see little help or hope for the small trader ill the Bill.

Today inflation is near 20 per cent. and prices are still rising. Many wage settlements are near or above 20 per cent., are still rising and may get higher. Due to high interest rates bank profits are enormous and unemployment is rising. Sooner or later the Government must have an incomes, prices and profits policy—not to do so will provoke economic disaster. This little Bill, which I accept is commendable in parts, will do nothing to ease the serious situation facing Britain today.


My Lords, I am sure that all those companies who were investigated by the Price Commission will be very pleased to have heard what my noble friend had to say about the very rigorous security that will be applied to the records of the Price Commission. I note also, and with pleasure, that any reason for changing that arrangement will be relayed to the CBI at the appropriate stage.

Perhaps my noble friends will allow me to talk to my noble friend on the Front Bench because I wish to ask him a question. I noticed that when my noble friend told us who would not be allowed to see the records of the Price Commisson he mentioned the Director General of Fair Trading—and that, of course, we welcome —but he did not mention the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Will the records of the Price Commission be kept from them? If my noble friend does not know at this stage, perhaps he could write to me and we shall get the matter on to the record somehow, perhaps through a Question. This is quite an important point. We would prefer—and I make this point seriously and authoritatively—that the Civil Service should not see the records of the Price Commission, though I think that that is probably asking a little too much under the existing legislation. However, they are records which deserve to be buried as swiftly as possible.


My Lords, I can assure my noble friend Lord Mottistone that the records of the Price Commission will be equally as unavailable to the MMC as they will be to the Director General of Fair Trading, except, of course, in accordance with the provisions which I mentioned. I hope that your Lordships will now agree that the Bill should pass.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons.

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