Clause 17. — (Interpretation.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Monopoly (Inquiry and Control) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th June 1948.

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Photo of Mr Oliver Lyttelton Mr Oliver Lyttelton , Aldershot 12:00 am, 29th June 1948

I do not think tint meets the point. If we talk about the rayon industry certain firms immediately come to mind; if we talk about E.L.M.A. other firms immediately come to mind. I do not think it is fair that imputations, which are frequently without foundation, should be allowed to be made without an opportunity being given to inquire, until a long time has passed, into what is taking place.

The worst blot of all is that the Government have taken powers to overrule the Commission's findings. No substantial reasons have been produced to justify this action. The Commission is to be an independent body with power to take evidence on oath, and so forth, and inquire into these very intricate matters. The Government, by a sort of side door, reserve to themselves the power to reverse the Commission's findings relating to the public interest. We say from these benches—and I hope hon. Members will not misunderstand the point of view—that if it should become necessary to say that the public interest is damaged by a certain method, this is not the way to do so. There must be legislation. It is quite wrong that by a side wind this power should be retained by the Government.

Many hon. Members opposite sincerely hoped, or perhaps I should say sincerely held the view, that the nationalisation of an industry would solve all its problems. They may have learnt otherwise now, but they honestly held that view. It is possible for the Commission, after inquiring into certain practices, to say that those practices were not against the public interest and indeed that the monopolistic practices were for the benefit of the public in particular circumstances. Hon. Members opposite might argue, "We do not think that any company should have such a share of the market. We do not think it is right that any company should make a profit by the sale of foodstuffs and for that reason we propose to set aside the findings of the Commission and nationalise the industry as a consequence of our own view of the situation." There is still time for the Government to erase some of the blots on the Bill, and I hope they may even at this late hour re-read some of the suggestions which came from this side of the House, and that they will be able to accept more of them than they did this afternoon.

As I have said, we do not intend to vote against the Bill, because, in the main, we think it is a sensible approach to an extremely intricate situation. Industrialists have the fortunes of large industries in their responsibility as well as the working conditions and the employment of very large numbers of men and women, who are dependent upon their judgment. They cannot feel, with the facile certainty often displayed by hon. Members opposite on this subject, that this or that practice is exactly a balance as between the public interest and the interests of the people in the industry, not only the shareholders, but, much more important, the workpeople of the particular industry, whose employment has got to be protected in exactly the same way as the interests of the consumers has to be protected.

Those who call for quick answers on these matters seldom know what they are talking about. As a matter of fact, the problem is one of extreme difficulty and a fine line has to be drawn between protecting in a legitimate way the interests of the workers, shareholders and consumers in an industry and the public interest. However carefully these things are drawn, there will always be an element of doubt, and it will reinforce the industrialists to have their actions endorsed or, if hon. Members prefer, condemned by an independent commission. In the majority of cases where action is condemned, alterations will be made in the practices.

The other reason which I, personally, welcome this Bill is because I think it will put to rest once and for all some of the slogans and catchwords which we have heard from time to time, some of which were voiced this afternoon by the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks), who, I am sorry to say, is not at the moment in his place. These slogans and catchwords, which are without foundation in fact, are sometimes the favourite sport of hon. Gentlemen opposite.

I have a rather unpleasant task with which to conclude. The President of the Board of Trade has himself been guilty in this respect, and I am afraid I must refer to it. In the Second Reading Debate, I think in order to draw me, he said that the price of lamps in this country was the highest of any country in Europe. I was able to show him that it happened to be the lowest in Europe. Then he went on to refer in these terms to something else: Evidence has been brought to my attention only recently of an ex-R.A.F. pilot who wanted to develop a new technique for making fluorescent lamps, but was frozen out by the withholding of supplies of glass tubing from factories controlled by ring firms. This was the evidence which was brought before me but I have not been able to test its accuracy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd April; Vol. 449, c. 2027–8.] Unfortunately for the President of the Board of Trade the R.A.F. officer concerned, whom I do not know and to whom I did not write, has taken it upon himself to write to me. I think I ought to read his letter to the House. He says this: The facts are as follows: During the war I was engaged on research work for Bomber Command. My brother was a Flight Lieutenant with the Eighth Air Force. At war end we put all our capital into Barlite Lamps Limited and commenced the production of a range of patented instant-start fluorescent lamps. Immediately prior to the fuel crisis our supplies of glass tubing from G.E.C. Wembley and Webbs Crystal Glass Co. dried up; for six weeks we had no production, no capital reserves and being Americans no useful financial contacts in England.