There will always be many other reasons why prices rise from year to year. The fact that prices have not fallen in one year is not an argument for maintaining R. P. M. Letus put it modestly: any Government would be very lucky if we had complete stability of prices from one year to another. There are all kinds of reasons, such as general cost increases, wage increases, raw material price increases, for which prices seem likely, to put it mildly, to go up by some amount year after year. If the abolition of R. P. M. has the effect for which I hope, it might not lead to an absolute fall in prices but it might lead to a smaller increase than otherwise would have occurred and a smaller increase than has occurred in other countries.
The last point which I wish to make on the issue of prices is that if we have reason to think that at any rate the direction in prices would be downwards, then we cannot neglect this Measure at this moment in the country's history. Whichever Government are in power, economic growth will be threatened by one thing alone—the possibility of a balance-of-payments crisis. The one thing which matters from the point of view of the national economy is competitive prices, if this measure of abolition will have any effect, however minor, in bringing down our prices relative to prices abroad, then it could not possibly be neglected at the moment by any Government.
To make our position on this side of the House quite clear, I think that most of us, possibly with one or two exceptions, in general want the abolition of R. P. M. We concede, as has been conceded by the Government in other anti-monopoly legislation, that there may be particular cases in which an argument can be made the other way. Most of us believe that the net book agreement falls into the category of the exceptional case. It may be that the pharmaceutical case made by the hon. Member for Putney also falls into that category. Personally, I find it hard to make up my mind on the arguments. But I am prepared to concede that pharmaceutical goods may be an exceptional case in which it would do more harm than good if R. P. M. were abolished. In any event, the machinery has been provided in the Bill for the exceptional case.
But it is very important that we should realise that these are the exceptions and that over by far the greater part of the goods now subject to R. P. M. its abolition would do very little harm to any genuine interest in retailing and would do some good at least to the consumer.