Orders of the Day — Restrictive Trade Practices

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd December 1957.

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Photo of Mr Lynn Ungoed-Thomas Mr Lynn Ungoed-Thomas , Leicester North East 12:00 am, 2nd December 1957

The Minister seemed to find considerable consolation in the fact that mere registration or provision for registration, such as we have in the Order, leads to the modification and alteration of existing agreements. That is, of course, true, but that in itself is of no significance at all in the pursuit of restrictive practices. What matters is not whether an alteration or modification is made, but whether the alteration or modification leads to any diminution of restrictive practices.

It is futile for the Minister to say, "We have provided a nice piece of legislation. Look at all the modifications and alterations which have been made". The modifications and alterations are made not to reduce the amount of restrictive practice, but to avoid being caught within the four corners of the Act whilst, at the same time, pursuing restrictive practices. Therefore, the information which is significant is not really modification or alteration. What is significant is to what extent there has been diminution of restrictive practice.

That is the information we would like to have if the Minister has it. Or is what the Minister is saying mere guesswork about the diminution of restrictive practice? Of course there are alterations and modifications. Everybody practising the laws knows that perfectly well. The industrialists are entitled to make modifications and alterations to keep outside the Act. They are entitled to pursue such restrictive practices which, as a result of those modifications and alterations, are not within the four corners of the Act.

The attack should not be upon the industrialists but upon the Government in so far as they have failed to provide a diminution of restrictive practices. They have chosen to bring in an Act which is complicated and full of loopholes. If the Government's case is that, because the registration which we have in this Order leads to an alteration, therefore the alteration and the Act are good, then he is living in a complete cloud cuckoo land.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, who introduced this Act when he was President of the Board of Trade, is now stumping the country begging industrialists to reduce restrictive practices, apparently no longer caring to rely upon the inadequate and slow workings of the Restrictive Practices Act. When are we to have the first case decided under the Restrictive Practices Act? Until we have that case decided there will not be a single case of any agreement which is registered under the Act in which a restricted practice is stopped.

It was said when we were debating the Bill that we would have the first case heard in October. October has passed and a case has not yet been heard. I believe that it was said that it was expected to come on in January. The latest information we have is that we cannot be told when the first case will be heard. It would be interesting for the House to know whether the Minister is now able to give any reasonably reliable indication of when the first case under the Restrictive Practices Act will be heard.

As the Minister is bringing in further provision for registration, then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) said, I suppose that the Registrar and the Board of Trade have in mind the bringing on of these agreements under the draft Order before the courts and that, therefore, they can see, and have in view, the ending of the hearings under the Order which has already been passed. Is that so? Have they obtained a calculation of the time when agreements already registered will have completed their hearing before the courts? If that is so, we should like to know what date or what appproximate time they have in mind.

Or are they just coming to the House to ask for this Order to be approved while having no idea of when they will complete the hearing of the agreements which have already been registered? If that is so, are they doing it because, as the Parliamentary Secretary so touchingly explained to us, the registration of the agreements will lead to some modifications or alterations, although he does not know what modifications or alterations, or for what purpose they are made, or what effect they will have on the restrictive practices?

I was a little concerned that the Parliamentary Secretary referred to the Registrar's willingness to see persons who were involved in agreements which, as he said, were borderline cases. The important question about that is, for what purpose will the Registrar see them about the borderline cases? I hope that the practice will not develop of the Registrar's advising them about what is registrable or what is not, in the so-called borderline cases, and on which apparently there is some doubt. Under the Act agreements are either within the Act or they are not within the Act. If they are within the Act they have to be registered. If they are outside the Act they need not be registered. It is only the Court which can decide in difficult cases of the application of the Act whether an agreement is within the Act or not within the Act.

I personally would not welcome—I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would not welcome—the building into the registry under the Act of some form of discretion in practice which is not given by the Act. I was a little concerned when the Parliamentary Secretary referred to that, and perhaps he would be good enough to clear up that question. I hope that there is no danger of anything of that sort developing.

I know that Ministers, no matter which party happens to be in power, are always under pressure for a discretion to be exercised even when no discretion is given. If a discretion were exercised it would be the recognition in the Civil Service of a legislative capacity which should not rest there at all. Therefore, all those who are so concerned, as so many hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned, about delegated legislation should be all the more concerned to see that delegation is not exercised when there is not even legislation for it. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will cause these little doubts, which I have in my mind as the result of his observations, to evaporate when he replies to the debate.