Orders of the Day — Goods and Services (Price Control)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd October 1944.

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6.3 p.m.

Photo of Mr Gilbert Gledhill Mr Gilbert Gledhill , Halifax

I beg to move, That the Order, dated 20th June, 1944, entitled the Utility Apparel and Utility Cloth Orders (Amendment) Order, 1944, a copy of which was presented on 5th July. be annulled. I move this for two main reasons. The first is that this Order is one of the first, if not the first, Order to be reported back to the House by the new Committee appointed for that purpose. I need not go into the reason for the appointment of that Committee; it is well known to the Parliamentary Secretary and to all hon. Members. Having formed a Committee whose purpose is to examine various Orders and Regulations we should be foolish and lacking in our duty if we did not attend to its reports. The second main reason I have is that having read this Order I am practically unable to understand it, and just to make quite sure that it was not due to the fact that I am approaching the sere and yellow leaf stage, I took it up with many of my friends in the trade. They also say they found it very confusing and difficult to understand because of its references to other Orders and so on. The explanatory note at the end says that one of its objects is to fix a ceiling for wholesalers' and retailers' prices. I submit to the Parliamentary Secretary that if the price of these goods is too high the public will certainly not buy them. Therefore, the ceiling seems to be quite unnecessary. My final argument against this Order is that with the general improvement in the war situation we are approaching the time when many Orders and Regulations could and should be cancelled. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has had the courage to do so in many cases. He has altered the black-out Regulations, and he has cancelled quite a number of other Orders in the past few days. I suggest that is a very good example which the Board of Trade and even other Government Departments might follow. At any rate I submit this is not the time for a flood of new Orders.

I am certain that when this House agreed to the passing of the Defence Regulations it was not intended that so many thousands of Orders should be issued. I am equally certain that this Order is unnecessary, and that it is not doing anything to help the war effort. I am sure there is no necessity for me to make a long speech on this point. I want to give the Parliamentary Secretary an opportunity of explaining this Order.

Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

Does my hon. Friend suggest that the manufacturers should be allowed to charge what they like?

Photo of Mr Gilbert Gledhill Mr Gilbert Gledhill , Halifax

I said that if they charge too high prices, especially the retailers, the public will not buy the goods. I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree with me. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to satisfy us, and even, perhaps, to withdraw the Order.

6.7 p.m.

Photo of Mr Reginald Manningham-Buller Mr Reginald Manningham-Buller , Daventry

I beg to second the Motion.

The House will remember that on 18th July the Select Committee reported, drawing the attention of the House to the Order on two grounds: first, the ground that it makes a somewhat unusual and unexpected use of the powers conferred by the Defence Regulations, and, secondly, that its form calls for elucidation. The House will remember that when that Select Committee was set up, five grounds were specified on which the attention of the House might be called to any particular Order, and that at that time an instruction was also given to the Committee that, before drawing the attention of the House to any Order, an opportunity should be given to the Department of furnishing an explanation to the Committee of any unusual feature in the Order. In this case, presumably, the Committee, before making their report to the House, heard some representative of the Board of Trade. In those circumstances, it seems right to put down a Prayer, to give the Minister an opportunity of dealing with the observations made upon this Order by the Select Committee. It seems to me that the onus of justifying the Order lies on the Minister and that it is a somewhat heavy onus, having regard to the lack of success which attended his representative before the Select Committee. It does not seem to me that it would be my duty, or, indeed, my right, to seek to justify the conclusion of the Select Committee: it is for the Minister to justify the Order. I am ignorant of the ground on which the Committee acted. The Order referred to no fewer than eight other Statutory Rules and Orders. There is nothing unusual about that, although, in my view, it is undesirable. If one looks at the first two tables in the Order, one sees the words, over the First Schedule: Amendments to Related Schedule No. to the Utility Apparel (Maximum Prices and Charges) Order, 1943. I am not sure—perhaps the Minister can tell us—what is the precise legal significance of the words "Related Schedule." I thought that any Schedule of any Bill or any Order related to something which preceded it, and the term "Related Schedule" is somewhat of an anomaly to me. This Order, apparently, does not amend or cancel an existing Order, but merely amends a Related Schedule to that Order. When one looks at the contents of the table, one sees that the retailer's percentage figure of the price paid on certain articles of clothing shall be 37·94 per cent., and on clothes judged by their sizes, 42.86 per cent. One can picture the difficulties of the small trader in making the necessary mathematical calculation. The second table deals with another Order. I do not think there is really much more that I need say in seconding this Motion, except to ask and to hope that the Minister will elucidate its form and justify the unusual and unexpected use of the powers conferred upon him, which was the opinion of the Select Committee.

6.11. p.m.

Photo of Mr Ronw Hughes Mr Ronw Hughes , Carmarthen

When the House set up a Select Committee to examine Statutory Rules and Orders it did so in very precise terms and laid down with great exactitude what were the functions of the Select Committee. One of the duties enjoined upon the Select Committee, of which I have the honour to be a member, was that of reporting to the House anything unusual or unexpected in the Statutory Rules and Orders it had examined. In the course of carrying out those duties it came across this Order, which contained within it a reference to a "Related Schedule." That was to the members of the Committee, as it was to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller), a novelty. It was unusual. It is true that it had appeared in Orders which had become law prior to the setting up of the Select Committee, but this was the first time that it had come to the notice of the Committee.

The Committee ascertained what, in fact, a "Related Schedule" was. I am not, in considering the Schedule, going to enter in any way into the merits or demerits of the substance of the "Related Schedule." Whether girls' utility blazers and raincoats, which are the subject matter of the "related Schedule," should or should not be controlled in price, or whether the price fixed is a proper one or not, I am not going to enter into at all, because it is clearly no part of the duty of the Committee to consider in any way the merits of the Statutory Rules and Orders. We did consider this unusual phrase "related Order," and we ascertained that the "related Order" was a device erected, not to confuse traders and others affected by it, but a device worked out in order to simplify the legislation under which they must operate. Hon. Members will be aware that if prices are set out in a Schedule, and the Schedule has to be amended, the Schedule has to be reprinted with the Order. We ascertained that the Board of Trade had struck upon this device of a "Related Schedule" in order to sectionalise the various kinds of garments and trades which were affected. Obviously, the wholesaler in stockings would not be interested in the retail price of pots and pans, or of some other articles of clothing, and different Related Schedules were e set up. They are legal, as they are given valid force by the Order which creates them. Then, when it is desired, as in this case, to bring in a further related Schedule for utility articles, all that is necessary is to include a new related Schedule dealing direct, in this case with girls' utility blazers and raincoats, to print it and to make it available to those who are interested in girls' utility blazers and raincoats, and not to reprint prices of other types of garments which are of no considerable interest to those who make and sell girls' utility blazers and raincoats. It is no part of the function of the Committee in this Report to say whether we think it to be right or wrong. We have our own views and I may tell the House that we were satisfied that it was a very successful procedure, but that it was not, upon the terms of reference given to us by this House and the duty enjoined upon us by this House, our duty to report that fact to the House.

If the mover and seconder of the Prayer had been as assiduous in studying the Order and its meaning as they have been in studying the Order Paper and hastening, as the mover said, to put down a Prayer because this was the first time the Select Committee had reported anything to the House, this House would not have been troubled. I suggest that if any of the Members who put their names to this Prayer had asked anybody upon the Select Committee the meaning of the reference, they would have been amply satisfied. The Prayer is before the House and I trust that for the reasons I put forward, apart from any others which may lie upon the merits, that the House will reject the Prayer.

6.19 p.m.

Photo of Mr Arthur Molson Mr Arthur Molson , High Peak

The hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Gledhill) who moved this Prayer has dealt with the merits or demerits of the Statutory Order that was issued, and I personally think he will find it difficult to persuade the House that the accepted policy of fixing prices in war-time is unsound. It is well within the responsibility of the Board of Trade to exercise its control of prices, and for that reason I hope that the House will reject this Prayer. I would like to associate myself with what has been said by the hon. and learned Member for Carmarthen (Mr. M. Hughes) with regard to the position of the Select Committee upon this matter.

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

We are not discussing the Select Committee but a particular Prayer.

Photo of Mr Arthur Molson Mr Arthur Molson , High Peak

May I have guidance on the point? The hon. Member in moving the Prayer suggested that because a Select Committee had drawn the attention of the House to this special Statutory Order, that in itself constituted a ground for moving this Prayer. I think on this first occasion it is desirable to rebut that argument which he has put forward. The Select Committee has certain terms of reference and it is obliged to draw the attention of the House to the Statutory Rules and Orders which, in its view, fall within four or five different categories. The only way in which the Select Committee can discharge the duty of being what has been called "a watch-dog committee is to draw the attention of hon. Members to Statutory Rules and Orders which fall into those categories. It would obviously be embarrassing if on every occasion when the attention of hon. Members was drawn to Statutory Rules and Orders, they regarded it as being an obligation upon them to put down a Motion for a Prayer. I hope, therefore, that the argument adduced by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Gledhill) and my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) will not in future be regarded as a ground for putting down a Prayer. On the merits, as criticised by the hon. Member for Halifax, I hope that the House will reject the Prayer.

6.21 p.m.

Photo of Mr Charles Waterhouse Mr Charles Waterhouse , Leicester South

It seems to me that the arguments of the opener have been already very adequately met. My hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson) dealt effectively with one of his main arguments, that it was wrong to control prices in wartime. I think the House, however impatient it may be with certain controls, will agree that the control of prices at least is an absolutely essential control to have as long as the scarcity of consumers' goods exists. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Gledhill) said he was putting down this Prayer as this was the first Report from this Committee,' and as that first Report it is an occasion of some little constitutional importance. I myself think it possibly a pity that a better opportunity had not been found for praying against an Order because, as was so clearly explained by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Moelwyn Hughes), this is not one of those provisions which is a confuser of the trader, but is rather one designed to make the task of the trader easier. This utility scheme of ours necessitates a very large number of intricate Schedules dealing with the prices of large ranges of items of clothing. Some of those items are dealt with by one trader, others by another trader; for example, a man's hosier does not deal normally with ladies' stockings, and those who deal in outer-wear often do not deal in underwear.

If, therefore, with the original Order we had printed the whole of the necessary Schedules there would have been a volume of great size. I have here, in fact, this collection of the eight Related Schedules to the original Order. We therefore devised the plan, both for saving printing and paper and for the convenience of the trader, of splitting these Schedules up into sections, so that any trader interested would buy the section that he needed and not the sections which he did not need. That, maybe, was unusual, although it is a practice which we at the Board of Trade adopted some twelve months ago, and Orders with related Schedules have lain unnoticed on the Table on several occasions. It may, too, have been unexpected, but I do suggest to the House that it was not an undesirable innovation and that therefore this Prayer should be rejected.

Photo of Mr Gilbert Gledhill Mr Gilbert Gledhill , Halifax

In view of the Parliamentary Secretary's explanation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.