Monopolies Commission

Oral Answers to Questions — Trade and Commerce – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th January 1955.

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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.

Photo of Mr Donald Wade Mr Donald Wade , Huddersfield West

asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he has yet received a report from the Monopolies Commission on certain widely prevalent discriminatory and restrictive practices; or when such report is expected.

Photo of Mr Marcus Lipton Mr Marcus Lipton , Lambeth Brixton

asked the President of the Board of Trade when the report of the Monopolies Commission on pneumatic tyres will be published.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

asked the President of the Board of Trade when the report of the Monopolies Commission on the subject of pneumatic tyres will be published.

Photo of Mr Arthur Lewis Mr Arthur Lewis , West Ham North

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.

Photo of Mr Jon Rankin Mr Jon Rankin , Glasgow Tradeston

asked the President of the Board of Trade if he will now say when the Monopolies Commission will complete its inquiry into restrictive practices in the motor-tyre industry.

Photo of Mr Harold Davies Mr Harold Davies , Leek

asked the President of the Board of Trade if he will refer to the Monopolies Commission the actions of trade associations in conducting courts and assuming powers to fine and cut supplies to salesmen who do not adhere to their price fixing arrangements.

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

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.

Mr. Wilson:

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

I do not think that anybody suggested that legislation should be introduced in advance of receiving a report and learning what the Commission consider it wise to do.

Photo of Mr Richard Harris Mr Richard Harris , Heston and Isleworth

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—

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

Order. This is not the time for speeches; it is the time for Questions.

Mr. Wilson:

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Not being an old boy of the London School of Economics, might I ask whether it is in order for the hon. Gentleman to put his supplementary question without declaring his very close personal interest in the affairs of this racket?

Photo of Mr Richard Harris Mr Richard Harris , Heston and Isleworth

I have declared my interest in this matter so many times that it should not be necessary for me to do so again.

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

Order. We had better get on with the Question. Mr. Wade.

Photo of Mr Richard Harris Mr Richard Harris , Heston and Isleworth

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was in the middle of asking a supplementary question. I had not finished it. I was interrupted. I should like to know if I may finish it?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I think we had better get on. Mr. Wade.

Photo of Mr Donald Wade Mr Donald Wade , Huddersfield West

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

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.

Photo of Mr Marcus Lipton Mr Marcus Lipton , Lambeth Brixton

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

It is not for me to deal with a B.B.C. programme which I did not hear anyway. I do not think we can usefully debate by question and answer a matter which the Monopolies Commission is studying at this moment.

Photo of Mr Frederick Erroll Mr Frederick Erroll , Altrincham and Sale

Can my right hon. Friend say what happens to a manual worker when he tries to do a job below the union rate?

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the Monopolies Commission has the staff and the organisation to undertake these very difficult inquiries which up to now have taken an unduly long time, through no fault of the Commission?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

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.

Photo of Mr Harold Davies Mr Harold Davies , Leek

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—

Hon. Members:

Speech.

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

Order. I have already protested against making Question time an occasion for speeches. There are plenty of other opportunities for speeches in this House.

Photo of Mr Harold Davies Mr Harold Davies , Leek

I was diverted by interruptions, Mr. Speaker. Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues the growth of these private courts and private powers to fine people?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

That is exactly the sort of matter which the Commission is now studying.

Photo of Mr Douglas Jay Mr Douglas Jay , Battersea North

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

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.

Photo of Mr Jon Rankin Mr Jon Rankin , Glasgow Tradeston

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

That would prejudge the whole question which the Commission is investigating.

Photo of Mr Arthur Lewis Mr Arthur Lewis , West Ham North

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

The Government's view is that they should fairly administer a Statute which the House of Commons has put upon the Statute Book.

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.

Photo of Mr Norman Dodds Mr Norman Dodds , Dartford

asked the President of the Board of Trade how long the Monopolies Commission has been examining the position with regard to the increased prices for electric lamps and also the restrictive practices of the tyre trade; what progress has been made; and when the two reports are expected.

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

The reference on the supply of tyres was sent to the Commission in September. 1952 I hope to receive its report by the middle of the year. The Commission has not been asked to investigate the increased prices of electric lamps.

Photo of Mr Norman Dodds Mr Norman Dodds , Dartford

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that when in opposition he often worked himself into a frenzy denouncing restrictive practices? Does he think that as President of the Board of Trade he is really living up to the early promise which he showed in this House?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

I think so. It was not until I was appointed President of the Board of Trade that any general reference of these questions was made to the Monopolies Commission.

Photo of Mr Norman Dodds Mr Norman Dodds , Dartford

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.

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

I am continuing to bear in mind the supply of petroleum products as a possible matter for reference to the Commission.

Photo of Mr Norman Dodds Mr Norman Dodds , Dartford

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

Some of these matters will no doubt be matters which the Commission will study.

Photo of Mr Frederick Erroll Mr Frederick Erroll , Altrincham and Sale

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the retail price of regular grade petrol is still a penny a gallon below the controlled price of 1953?

Mr. H. Wilson:

Since these price changes are related to Gulf prices, which are quite irrelevant to our sources of supply, does he not agree that the time is long overdue to institute price control?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

That is quite a different question. This is a question about the Monopolies Commission, and that is not a price control body.

Photo of Mr Douglas Jay Mr Douglas Jay , Battersea North

asked the President of the Board of Trade what action he proposes to take arising out of the Report of the Monopolies Commission on the calico-printing industry.

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

The Government are considering this Report and the views which the industry and the Cotton Board have submitted. I shall make a further statement in due course.

Photo of Mr Douglas Jay Mr Douglas Jay , Battersea North

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

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.

Photo of Mr Arthur Bottomley Mr Arthur Bottomley , Rochester and Chatham

asked the President of the Board of Trade if he will take steps to enable the Monopolies Commission to speed up the investigation into the manufacture of cathode ray tubes, so that the advantages of cheaper production methods can be passed on to the public.

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

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.

Photo of Mr Arthur Bottomley Mr Arthur Bottomley , Rochester and Chatham

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

This question has only just been referred to the Commission.

Photo of Mr Arthur Bottomley Mr Arthur Bottomley , Rochester and Chatham

asked the President of the Board of Trade if he will review the composition and procedure of the Monopolies Commission, with a view to enabling it to report more speedily.

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

No, Sir. It is equally important that a report shall be thorough and fair to all parties concerned.

Photo of Mr Arthur Bottomley Mr Arthur Bottomley , Rochester and Chatham

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

It is not a question of the legislative programme. What is necessary is the thorough investigation of what are often very complicated problems.

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

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.

Photo of Mr Arthur Bottomley Mr Arthur Bottomley , Rochester and Chatham

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)?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

The right hon. Gentleman had many opportunities during his own period of office to introduce that Bill or a better one.

Photo of Mr Donald Wade Mr Donald Wade , Huddersfield West

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.

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

I would refer the hon. Member to the answers I have already given on these subjects.

Photo of Mr Donald Wade Mr Donald Wade , Huddersfield West

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

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.

Photo of Mr Jon Rankin Mr Jon Rankin , Glasgow Tradeston

asked the President of the Board of Trade when he expects to receive the report of the Monopolies Commission on the investigation of the television tubes industry.

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

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.

Photo of Mr Jon Rankin Mr Jon Rankin , Glasgow Tradeston

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

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.

Photo of Mr Richard Harris Mr Richard Harris , Heston and Isleworth

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?

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

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.

Photo of Mr Hugh Gaitskell Mr Hugh Gaitskell , Leeds South

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.

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth

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.

Photo of Mr Richard Harris Mr Richard Harris , Heston and Isleworth

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?

Photo of Mr Arthur Lewis Mr Arthur Lewis , West Ham North

Further to that point of order—

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

Order. I have been asked a question on a point of order. I have previously ruled that it is not necessary for an hon. Member to disclose any interest he might have in the subject matter of a Question which he addresses to a Minister.