Mr. H. Wilson:
asked the President of the Board of Trade (1) when he expects to receive reports from the Monopolies Commission on the subject of restrictive practices in the sale of motor tyres and on the wider question of stop lists, exclusive dealings, and the imposition of fines on private traders by non-statutory private tribunals;
(2) if he will take action now to make illegal the practice of stop lists used by trading associations to deter private traders from selling goods below a ring price.
asked the President of the Board of Trade if his attention has been drawn to cases where traders wishing to sell articles below a fixed price have been barred from doing so by various traders' organisations; whether he will state the Government's view on these practices; what action he proposes to take to stop them; and whether he will refer these practices to the Monopoly Commission.
I hope to receive by the middle of this year the Commission's reports on tyres and on their inquiry into the general effect of certain widely prevalent discriminatory practices, including stop lists and exclusive dealing. I think it would be best to await these reports before making up my mind on what to do about these matters.
Mr. H. Wilson:
The progress is deplorably slow, as the right hon. Gentleman will agree. Is he aware of the very strong public feeling as a result of some of the cases which have recently received publicity? In view of the bitter condemnations of such practices by himself and the Lord Chancellor before they became members of the Government, will the right hon. Gentleman now begin to take action about them?
It would be very unwise for any Government to take action ahead of these reports. The Commission was set up by Parliament for the express purposes of studying these matters. It is perfectly true that it takes the Commission some considerable time to investigate a matter of such a kind as general practices, an investigation which ranges over the whole of industry. It is much more important that the Commission should reach the right conclusion than that it should try to report much more quickly.
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree with the statement made by the previous Government, that in view of the slow progress of the Monopolies Commission, though it has its part to play, it is now essential to introduce general legislation banning malpractices such as these over the whole length and breadth of British industry?
In view of some of the tendentious accusations which are made, might I ask my right hon. Friend to resist the attempts by old boys of the London School of Economics, who have never produced anything except economic chaos and near-bankruptcy, to wreck an industry which is giving good service to the public, and provides—
On the subject of tyres, is the Minister aware that the case which received considerable publicity recently is not an exceptional one, and that I can give him details of a number of similar cases if he wishes? In view of the extreme form of restraint and interference with retail trading in the cases which are brought to light, can he do anything to speed up the report so that the House may be fully informed on the matter?
It would be as improper for me to comment on an individual case as it would be to comment on what my hon. Friend was saying about the matter. The whole question was referred to the Monopolies Commission. Naturally, we should like it to report as expeditiously as possible, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that what is really important is that the Commission should be able to undertake a full and fair inquiry and present an accurate report.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the motor-car and accessory trades operate on a scandalously high margin of profit which they dare not disclose to the general public, and that they even succeeded in forcing the B.B.C. to censor the repeat programme of "Any Questions?" last Friday, which dealt with the subject?
Yes, Sir, I am so satisfied. If I had any representation from the Commission that it required any further assistance from me, I should give it the most urgent and sympathetic consideration.
Is the Minister aware that, despite all the flippancy that we have heard, the serious thing about this matter is the growth in our democracy of private courts and private powers to fine people? [Interruption.] If hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite will keep quiet for a moment and think of the public interest instead of their own, we may get somewhere. Something ought to be done by Parliament to prevent the situation to which I have referred. The Conservative Government were going to set the people free but what they are doing is—
Was it not in September, 1952, that this trade was referred to the Commission? Has the investigation not taken an intolerably long time? Since the hon. Member for Heston and. Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris) has got so heated about the matter, would it not be helpful to the House if he were now clearly to declare his interest?
The time taken on all these Reports has been about the same under the previous Government and the present Government, it being about two years from the time of reference to the presentation of the full report. The present report has taken slightly longer, but it is a very complex subject.
Is it not remarkable that the industry in question is still carrying on with the practices of which we are complaining while the Commission is actually engaged in examining these complaints? Can the President not at least ask the industry to behave itself until the Commission reports?
As we know at least one hon. Member—and by the voices raised, so are several of the hon. Members beside him—to be in favour of this, and in view of the Twickenham by-election result and the identity of the Member there, is it the view of the Government that this is a worthy practice? Do they support it? Can we have the Government's view?
Mr. H. Wilson:
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this Mendelsohn case from Stockport is by no means the worst? Recent details have become available of cases, not only of snoopers, but of agents provocateurs and employees of this particular ring, going round various firms under false names luring and tricking people into selling tyres below the standard price in order that they can be fined.
asked the President of the Board of Trade if he is aware of the concern arising from the increase in the price of petrol and diesel oil at a time when there is a world surplus of oil and profits in the industry are too high; and, in view of the harmful effect this has on the cost of living, if he will refer the matter to the Monopolies Commission.
While appreciating what the right hon. Gentleman has said, can he deny that there is an amazing degree of unanimity in the timing and the amount of the increases in the prices of petrol and oil? In view of all the factors of profit and the fact that there is a world surplus, can he not now consider reducing the prices so that there will be increased consumption and a lowering of the cost of living? In a matter of this sort, I ask him to go to it with greater speed than he has done in the past, as this breaks all the rules of competitive free enterprise?
Is this not a case where the Commission has already reported and the President, on top of the period which the Commission took, has himself taken nearly nine months in which to make up his own mind?
It is true that this is the only one of the Reports received on which action has not so far been announced. I have subsequently had comments submitted to me by the Federation of Calico Printers and the Cotton Board to which I am giving, as I am sure they deserve, careful study. I shall make a statement in due course.
I am satisfied that the Commission has all the facilities it needs to conduct its inquiry as expeditiously as is consistent with efficiency and fairness. I cannot prejudge the matter raised in the last part of the Question.
Is the President aware that many people with television sets, particularly poor people, are unable to use them, because they cannot afford to buy tubes, which are too expensive? Will he speed up the inquiry?
In this connection will not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Commission needs to speed up its work, which is of vital importance to everyone? Will not he agree that the legislative programme is so light that he could easily do this if he wished?
Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing:
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on this side of the House supported him when he strengthened and speeded up the Monopolies Commission when he took office, and that we would further support him if he could find other methods to increase the working and the speed of its procedure, because we are wholly opposed to restrictive practices of this sort?
I appreciate what my hon. Friend has said. What I said when we introduced the legislation was that it enabled more reports to be produced because it strengthened the numbers of the Commission; but that nothing we could do could accelerate the speed at which an individual report was produced because that involved a thorough investigation of the industry concerned.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that we said that that legislation did not go far enough and that we pressed for further action? Does he know whether his hon. Friend the Member for Heston & Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris) supports the view which has just been expressed by his hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing)?
asked the President of the Board of Trade whether the Monopolies Commission has yet completed its investigations into price fixing and exclusive dealing in the supply of pneumatic tyres and the supply of television cathode-ray tubes; and when he expects these respective investigations to be completed.
Would the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to clarify his view on this point? Without wishing to belittle the conscientious work done by the Commission, may I ask whether he is satisfied that the procedure under the Act of 1948 is adequate? If not, has the right hon. Gentleman any alternative at all to propose to waiting for reports from the Commission?
I am certain that it would be wrong for Parliament to take action on a particular industry on any of these very controversial matters ahead of a report from the Commission.
I referred the supply of electronic valves and cathode ray tubes to the Commission in December last. It is not possible at this early date to say when the Commission will have completed this inquiry.
Would the Minister encourage the Commission to proceed a little more quickly on the investigation of television tubes industry than it has done with the tyre industry? Is he aware that in September, 1953, the average cost of television tubes in America was £8 7s. 5d. and in September, 1954, the average cost there was £7 5s. 7d.? Further, is he aware that no comparable price exists in Great Britain, due to the price fixing of the private monopolists which is nourished by the right hon. Gentleman's inactivity?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the information which he has given. At the same time I would point out that the Commission is not looking essentially at prices. It is considering whether monopoly conditions operate in the industry and whether or not they are in the national interest.
Might I ask my right hon. Friend whether there are any instances where, as a result of a report by the Commission, prices to the public have been reduced at all? If not, will he please dispel this illusion that simply by referring something to the Commission one will make prices come tumbling down?
I hoped that I had made it plain that the Commission is not a price investigating or price fixing body. What it is there for is to see whether a monopoly condition exists in an industry and, if it does, to decide whether it is in the national interest that it should continue to exist. The Commission has reported on a large number of industries and action has been taken in many instances.
Is not it perfectly clear that high prices are frequently associated with restrictive practices? Is not it, therefore, very probable that in the case of the cathode-ray tubes, on which information about prices has been given, the price situation is directly due to monopolistic action of one kind or another.
It is true that high prices can be caused by all forms of restrictive practices. I think that that will be common ground on both sides of the House. At the same time, it is true that price changes can take place for many other reasons than restrictive practices. That is why I distinguish between a body like the Commission, which has an essential role of studying monopoly conditions, and some price-fixing machinery which would be quite outside that body's scope.
On a point of order. May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker? It has been suggested more than once from the Opposition side of the House today that I should have disclosed my interest. I thought that you had ruled about 12 months ago that one did not have to dislose one's interest during Questions; but if one does have to, then I shall be only too pleased to do so. May I have your guidance?