In calling the first Amendment on the Notice Paper, may I indicate that perhaps it would be for the convenience of the Committee to discuss with it the Amendments in page 1, line 8, leave out "exempted goods" and insert:
registration and to the powers of the Restrictive Practices Court thereunder".
In Clause 2, page 2, line 31, leave out "exempted goods" and insert:
registration, to the powers of the Restrictive Practices Court thereunder".
In Clause 5, page 4, line 34, after "order", insert:
(being good; of which particulars are entered in the register kept in accordance with those provisions)".
In Clause 6, page 5, line 35, at beginning insert:
(1) It shall be the duty of the Registrar to prepare, compile and maintain for the purposes of this Act a register of goods in respect of which notices are given to him under this section, and to make reference to the court under section 5 of this Act (subject to such directions as may be given by the Board of Trade with respect to the order in which such references are to be made) in respect of all goods of which particulars are for the time being entered in the register.
Clause 6, page 5, line 41, leave out from "suppliers" to end of line 42 and insert:
claiming registration in respect of those goods".
In Clause 6, page 5, line 44, leave out from "shall" to "and" in line 1 on page 6 and insert:
cause particulars of the goods, of the person giving the notice and of the arrangements described in the notice to be entered in the register".
In Clause 6, page 6, line 6, leave out from "which" to "him" in line 7 and insert:
particulars are entered in the register kept by".
In Clause 6, page 6, line 11, leave out from "which" to "and" in line 12 and insert "particulars are so entered".
In Clause 6, page 6, line 15, leave out from "which" to end of line 16 and insert:
particulars are so entered.
(4) The Registrar shall also from time to time publish lists of the classes of goods in respect of which the court has made, refused to make or discharged orders under this Act, and any such list may be combined with a list published under subsection (3) of this section".
And in Clause 6, page 6, line 17, leave out "any such list" and insert:
the lists described in subsection (3) of this section".
On a point of order. While we on this side have no objection to the specific grouping of Amendments which you, Sir William, have just proposed, I would say that we assume that any grouping of Amendments in the proceedings on this Bill will be arranged wholly for the convenience of the Committee and not for the convenience of the Government.
Sir William, I was saying that, as you are in the Chair, we assume that this will be the case. However, I give notice that, because we have raised no objection to the grouping you have mentioned, it does not follow that we will accept any other specific grouping later.
Secondly, on this point of order, Sir William, I am bound to ask for your guidance in this matter. The Committee has been placed in an extra-ordinary position by the manner in which the Government have conducted proceedings on the Bill. The Bill was introduced into the House three weeks ago, and, incidentally, no notice had been given of it in the Gracious Speech. Today we find ourselves, after its Second Reading, confronted with quite a different Bill. No less than 10 Amendments of a complicated kind were tabled on Friday and a number of further Amendments were tabled this morning.
It is well within your knowledge, Sir William, that a number of hon. Members visit their constituencies at weekends. I submit that insufficient time has been given to hon. Members fully to consider the complicated series of changes which have been made in the Bill. I realise that this situation is, of course, in no way your fault, but is due to the confusion and muddle into which Government business has fallen. This is characteristic.
Nevertheless, in the circumstances, in raising this point of order, I wish to ask you. Sir William, whether it would be in order for me to move now, That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again, so that hon. Members from both sides who have not yet fully studied the details of these important Amendments may have time to do so and also that the Government may have time to sort themselves out and be quite sure that the proposals which they are now putting forward are the ones which they really wish to submit to Committee.
As to whether Amendments will be correctly selected or not, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, as the Committee knows, the duty of selecting Amendments devolves upon the occupant of the Chair. All I can say is that I shall try to perform that duty faithfully.
The hon. Gentleman will be heard subsequently, if he will allow me to conclude my reply to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay).
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether he would be in order in seeking to move to report Progress. He would certainly be in order in so seeking, but I should be equally in order in declining to accept the Motion.
At this stage, I am not prepared to accept it.
Further to that point of order, Sir William. Is it in order for my right hon. Friend to accuse the Government of being unfair in introducing new Amendments more or less on the spur of the moment, as he suggested they have, when it is common knowledge that the Government have been having meetings consistently for a whole week with hon. Members allegedly supporting them? If the Minister has been discussing the matter, surely my right hon. Friend is wrong to suggest that he has been doing it surreptitiously.
This is the point I am putting to you, Sir William. My right hon. Friend was suggesting that you should report Progress and ask leave to sit again and, in substantiation, he accused the Government of not notifying the House of what they were doing. What I wished to ask your ruling on was this. Is it in order for my right hon. Friend to say that the Government had not, in fact, made—
Order. As I understand it, that is the identical point which the hon. Gentleman raised earlier. It is not a point of order. I do not accept it.
On a point of order, Sir William. May I put to you the reasons, as they affect a private Member, why we should ask you to reconsider the decision you gave in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Jay)? This Bill has excited, whether rightly or not, a good deal of controversy in the country. As a constituency Member, I attended the Second Reading debate, I visited my constituency and received representations from many retail trade organisations which were concerned about the then implications of the Bill. I studied the Bill. I read the Explanatory Memorandum, and I collected the Amendments at 3.30 on Friday afternoon, with the intention of working through them. I was then informed by certain Sabbath organs of information that the Committee stage was already taking place upstairs in my absence. [Interruption.] I apologise for an inaccuracy. I am told that it was downstairs.
However, arriving this morning, I was confronted by the fact that the Explanatory Memorandum had ceased to have any meaning, that the Bill's Short Title had been contravened, and that a number of further Amendments appeared on the Notice Paper hidden among 180 Amendments. No one would suggest for a moment, Sir William, that your selection will not be made in the interests of the House and the country, but it is possible to wonder whether you have been given sufficient time to make a selection, in the circumstances, when you have to study so many complex Clauses at short notice.
All the opinions of my constituents are now nugatory. Before voting today, I ought to seek their opinions again. The Minister, who was sailing in one direction a week or two ago, has now given the order completely to reverse direction. It seems to me, Sir William, that on a Bill which some hon. Members consider to be important—though I do not share that view particularly—on which 180 Amendments have been tabled, and about which private Members, in the absence of the services of a computer, are almost completely unable to produce the sort of answers which their constituents expect them to produce of their own volition and out of their own knowledge and experience, as a result of labours which they have gone through voluntarily in trying to make themselves conversant with public opinion—
I submit to you that, in the circumstances I have outlined, which no one has sought to challenge, to continue with this debate today would be intolerable and would put an impossible burden on private Members who have little secretarial assistance and who are endeavouring to discharge their duties as they should.
What the hon. Gentleman has said has not shaken me in my decision not at this stage to accept a Motion, That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again. Could we now get on?
Further to that point of order, Sir William. I should have thought that every hon. Member, in seeking to raise a point of order on this aspect of the matter, would have began by expressing the feeling that the Chair had been put in an intolerable position. It would have been at least courteous if the Secretary of State had opened the proceedings by making an apology to you and to the Committee.
May I put to you, Sir William, a further reason why you should reconsider the question of a proposal to move, That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again. What is the position of a Member who might wish to sign the new Amendments put down by the Government? The Government have put down fresh Amendments which have appeared on the Notice Paper only this morning. This deprives any Member who wishes to support the Government by adding his name to those Amendments of the right to do so. Surely, this should have been taken into account by the Government before they resorted to the procedure which they have adopted.
If the Government felt that they could not produce decisive Amendments until the Monday morning, their right course, to prevent embarrassment not only to the Committee in general but to the Chairman of Way and Means in particular, would have been to seek means to postpone the business of the House on this matter, and this is precisely the course which my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) has recommended. I imagine that there can be no precedent for a Government proceeding with a Measure of this nature and putting down Amendments which hon. Members have not the right to consider supporting in the usual way.
I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that there are a good many precedents. Perhaps he will allow me to deal with the situation as it is. The Notice Paper has no starred Amendment until we come to page 1833, at which point there is an Amendment put down by the Secretary of State to Clause 3, page 3, line 29. When we come to that stage, I shall be quite prepared to consider the situation. At present, I am sure that I am right to take the situation as it is and to invite the Committee to start considering the Bill.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) have said that the Government have put down Amendments this morning. If that is the case—and, so far as I am aware, no hon. Member has seen any of these Amendments because the Notice Paper that we have was circulated on Friday—how can we be aware, Sir William, what these Amendments are, and how can we find out about them?
With regard to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), surely one is in very great difficulty indeed when the Government, after negotiation with their supporters, have left to after Second Reading putting down Amendments which amount almost to a new Bill—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. and learned Member, but I cannot see how his present contention affects me in the conduct of the Chair regarding this afternoon's debate. That argument could, perhaps, be used across the Floor of the Committee, but not with me.
The point which I am making is this, that, after all, the Committee stage should provide an opportunity for the Opposition, and, indeed, for other hon. Members, to offer Amendments to the Government's proposals, and that if we have Government proposals put forward today for the first time as a result of the negotiations opposite, and they include the very first Amendment which we shall have to decide, how can we have an opportunity to consider these new proposals of the Government and put down our considered Amendments to them?
In my submission, to go on with the Committee stage at this point—when there are proposals, on which we are about to start, which are put forward by the Government in circumstances in which we are denied the opportunity to offer our Amendments—really is a denial of the rights of the Opposition and of the whole of Committee procedure.
I have drawn the attention of the Committee to the fact that the first starred Amendment relates to Clause 3, and we are not at this moment so far on in our business. When we reach Clause 3 I will consider that, but at this moment I am not prepared to accept a Motion to report Progress, till we get further on; and whether I would accept one then or not remains to be seen.
I wonder whether you would consider this point, Sir William. It is customary in Committee for the Chairman to announce what his attitude is to starred Amendments—and certainly in Committee on Bills recently taken elsewhere I have been very much the victim of this. Now there appear for the first time important changes to the Bill. They are starred—
This is a very important point. I think, Sir William, that the assumption you make is that by the time we come to that Amendment it will not be starred. The point is that if the opposition to the Bill, or to any suggestion which is within the Amendment, seeks itself to amend it, that Amendment to the Amendment will be a starred Amendment tomorrow, when the Government one is unstarred, and when you may then rule that we cannot take starred Amendments. Remember, this is made more important by virtue of the fact that we are dealing with this Bill on consecutive days; it is not as though there were a day or two between each sitting of the Committee on the Bill. I hope, Sir William, that you will consider this point, that the rights of the Opposition will be maintained equally with the rights of the Government who change their mind so suddenly.
Order. We shall not make any progress along these lines. I have said that I am not prepared to consider what the future situation will be till we come to it. When we come to it then I shall, as now, he as the service of the Committee to give a Ruling which I believe to be correct at that time.
But, Sir William, I do not think you have understood me. Will the position be reached where my right hon. Friend can move the Motion which has already been suggested? It will be a decision of the Committee which will determine whether we continue or not, and if the decision of the Committee is to continue we shall not have had an opportunity, if we reach that point, to put Amendments down to the starred Amendment.
I am sure I am right to say that remains to be seen when we get there, and when we get to that point will be the right and proper time for the Chair to give its Ruling
Further to the point of order. May I underline it? Because we may reach the stage today which my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) referred to, because of the decision taken by the Government side—[HON. MEMBERS: "The Whips."]—on the Motion moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay). In view of the fact that the Government have a substantial majority, it will mean that there will be a continuance of the sitting of the Committee, and a denial of the right of back benchers to amend the proposals outlined.
I am sure that it would be quite contrary to general practice for the Chair to proceed to rule so far ahead on a Motion which has not yet been moved, for I have at this moment declined to accept the Motion that I should report Progress. That is all I have done up to the moment.
Would this suggestion be helpful to you and the Committee, Sir William, that you might be able to give us an assurance now that should the Committee reach Clause 3 today, in that event you would be prepared to accept the Motion which I was proposing to put forward, That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again?
That is just what I am inviting the Committee not to drive me to do. If and when we reach such a point later today, then I will certainly consider it to the best of my ability. I can go no further.
With reference to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) about starred Amendments, may I point out that it is generally accepted that the Chair will not accept starred Amendments, and that if we ever get to the point of the starred Amendment and the Motion that the Chairman do report Progress is refused, then we shall come to the point where the starred Amendment might or might not be accepted by the Chair, in which case the Opposition would be deprived of the opportunity of moving Amendments to it? If that situation should arise, would the Chair be amenable to accepting manuscript Amendments today in order to safeguard the rights of the Opposition in these circumstances?
I cannot bind the Chair either to accept anything or to refuse to accept anything. The hon. Gentleman is not correct in assuming that on no occasion does the Chair call a starred Amendment. That would be a false assumption.
I have a new point of order, Sir William.
As you know, on occasions like these, hon. Members like to make various arrangements. You have announced that with the first Amendment on the Notice Paper which you are inviting the Committee to discuss nine other Amendments shall be considered at the same time. It would be for the convenience of the Committee if you would be good enough to indicate that the Committee, although all these Amendments are taken together, nevertheless has a right to vote individually on the first Amendment and on every other Amendment which is being taken with it. It is important that this should be made clear.
The nine other Amendments which are being taken with the first one have been signed by hon. Members of high status and repute, and the Amendments have been very carefully considered by them before they were tabled. The Committee ought to be given an opportunity of voting on each and every one of the Amendments now to be discussed.
If a subsequent Amendment hung on the Committee's decision on the first Amendment, that would certainly be called and be voted on. Otherwise, the practice of the Chair, carrying out the duty imposed upon it, is that certain Amendments should be selected and certain Amendments should be grouped together; and in that case if one side or the other is particularly anxious to register a Division, the Chair, in its discretion, may allow a Division on a further Amendment although it has been discussed together witth a block of other Amendments.
That remark is made improperly from a seated position. As the Committee will see, there is on a paper in the Noes Lobby one Amendment with an asterisk, against which is written "Separate Division if required". It is usual to announce that in advance. But, as the Committee has had experience, if in the course of the debate, the Opposition make a strong plea for a vote on another Amendment, the Chair has been known to accept that plea and to allow a Division on a further Amendment.
Do hon. Members want to get on? It would be much better if we could get on.
On a point of order, Sir William. I was given notice, as was an hon. Friend of mine, by an hon. Member opposite, that at 3.30, at the start of the Committee proceedings, he would raise the subject of my right to put my name to Amendments on the Notice Paper. This involves a constitutional matter of some importance. This notice was given to me by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke), and he also gave notice to my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot).
I should have thought, Sir William, that the practice of the House becomes absolutely meaningless if an hon. Member gives notice to other hon. Members that he intends to raise the matter and then gets cold feet and runs away from it. Surely hon. Members on both sides of the House—
That would be a matter for one hon. Member and another. It is no matter for the Chair. Nothing has been put to me. The hon. Member is raising no point of order that comes within my prerogative.
I venture with respect, Sir William, to revert to your original Ruling declining to accept my right hon. Friend's request for leave to move that the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again. I submit to you in all seriousness that your refusal to give my right hon. Friend leave to move the Motion was an inadvertent misuse of the rights of the House. I put it to you on this basis, that it is quite clear from all that has happened here since we went into Committee that the House of Commons is faced with a new and difficult situation. It has been placed in that position by the—
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but in my discretion—and the duty is imposed upon me of exercising my discretion—I decline at this stage to accept a Motion that I do report Progress and ask leave to sit again. I adhere to the decision that I made, and at this stage I shall go no further from that. I should now like to go on with the business.
Sir William, I had not finished putting my point of order to you, and I should not have ventured to put it to you if I had not attached some importance to it. What I am putting to you is that this is clearly a new situation, and one in which the Committee finds itself in great difficulty. The Committee may or may not want the Chairman to report Progress and ask leave to sit again, but, with all respect, whether it wants to or does not want to is a matter for the Committee to decide and not for the Chair.
If the Chair refuses to allow my hon. Friend to move the Motion at all, the Committee is deprived of the opportunity of doing what it might well in these special circumstances have wished to do. The opposition to the Government comes not from one side only. There are many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite who are not content with the situation even as it is now.
I wonder whether I could help the Committee by reading Standing Order 28(1). It says:
If Mr. Speaker, or the chairman, shall be of opinion that a dilatory motion is an abuse of the rules of the House, he may forthwith put the question thereupon from the chair, or he may decline to propose the question there-upon to the House or the committee.
I am within my rights in declining to put the Question to the Committee and I shall not budge from it now.
Order. I ask the Committee to accept my Rulings. I have carried the Committee with them at every stage and explained what my Rulings are based on. I can do no better as Chairman. I hope that the Committee will accept my Ruling and allow us to get on with the business. Mr. Wigg.
I hope that the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) will not deny the Chair the right of selecting which Member to call first.
Sir William, I am sure that hon. Members on both sides will support you in doing your duty to the Committee. I am sure, also, that every hon. Member must do his duty to the Committee. Would you, therefore, bear in mind that it is a usurpation of the courtesies and duties of the House if an hon. Member gives notice that he proposes to raise a matter and then fails to do so? If you are not aware of that, would you consider sending for Mr. Speaker so that he may rule on the matter?
On a point of order. This is quite a different point of order. As you have observed, Sir William, it is, of course, for the Chair to select Amendments. I observe with regret that Amendment No. 9, in page 2, line 5, has not been selected, and, of course, I cannot argue about that, but is not the position as to the grouping of Amendments different? Once Amendments are found to be in order, and are selected, then the grouping of them is a matter for consultation with the Committee. But I imagine that it will be some time tomorrow before we reach the Amendment in—
I do not think that the hon. and learned Member is correct. I think that the duty devolves on the Chair to select Amendments and to decide how they may most conveniently be grouped for the benefit of the Committee.
Yes, Sir William, the point is that it is done for the benefit of the Committee. That is a matter for the Committee.
I imagine that we shall not reach Amendment No. 7, in page 1, line 15, until some time tomorrow. That Amendment appears to deal with three different matters—the small shopkeepers case, the pharmacists case, and the off-licence case, if I may so describe them. They seem to be three entirely different cases. I was trying to ask whether, when the time comes, we might discuss those three matters separately, as they seem to be entirely different from one another.
As I see the matter, at present I would be reluctant to alter what has been selected and what has been grouped together, but when the time comes, and we reach the problem, no doubt we can consider whether it should be looked at again.
I beg to move, and after the last half hour I am glad to be able to move, in page 1, line 8, to leave out "exempted goods" and to insert:
registration and to the powers of the Restrictive Practices Court thereunder".
Sir I am glad that you have ruled that we can discuss a number of Amendments together with this one, because this is the first of a number of Amendments which are designed to change the procedure by which resale price maintenance agreements are to be considered by the Restrictive Practices Court. The debate on the Amendment must cover the procedure envisaged by the Amendments to Clauses 1, 2, 5 and 6 if it is to be understood at all.
I apologise to the Committee if the Amendments are not perfectly drafted, but I hope that they will prove acceptable to my right hon. Friend and to the Committee without any significant adjustments. Under the procedure proposed in the Bill as it stands all r.p.m. agreements are regarded as illegal from the date on which the governing Clauses come into effect unless the supplier—or suppliers—concerned makes application for exemption, and in that case it is the duty of the Registrar to refer all such applications to the Court.
Again, under the Bill as it stands, although a supplier may continue to maintain r.p.m. until a decision of the Court is known, it means that every supplier who wishes to continue with the system must give notice to the Registrar and require him to make a reference to the Court in respect of the goods concerned.
Under the proposed Amendment, and the consequential Amendments, no supplier is required to apply for exemption. He is required only to register the r.p.m. arrangements that exist, and if he does not, it is taken that he intends to discontinue those arrangements and they fall to the ground.
The Registrar then has to take the initiative in referring to the Court certain goods of which notice has been registered, and the Board of Trade may give directions to the Registrar as to the order in which those cases are referred to the Court. That means that the Board of Trade could direct the attention of the Registrar to arrangements that had already come under review by the Monopolies Commission, and for which there may be a good case for referring to the Court.
Again, by direction of the Board of Trade the Registrar may also refer to the Court those interests which indicate a desire to be heard at an early date. I understand that some people may wish their cases to be heard as soon as possible. Hon. Members will remember that there is a not dissimilar procedure operating under the Restrictive Practices Act, and it will be remembered that when the books agreement was considered not long ago the Registrar said that he had no evidence to offer to the Court.
It is reasonable to assume that although the Board of Trade, under the proposed Amendments, is only taking power to direct the Registrar in respect of the order in which cases can be referred to the Court—indeed, I think that it would be improper for the Board of Trade to take any other powers than that—nevertheless, the Registrar, if precedent is anything to go by, is able to use his discretion whether or not to offer evidence in any case and to inform the Court accordingly. Until such reference is made, and the Court has announced its decision after hearing the evidence, r.p.m. remains in force and is legally enforceable.
I appreciate that these Amendments may not be so far reaching as some may have hoped or expected, but they create a change of emphasis in procedure, and, I think, an important change of emphasis. Under the Bill as it was drafted, some people believed, rightly or wrongly, that in the Bill itself there was an assumption that the case was prejudged. Whatever we may feel about that opinion, it is always important in any piece of legislation not only that justice should be done but that it should appear to be done. I think that in the proposed Amendments, of which this is the first, it is clearly the case that justice will appear to be done as well as be done.
The obligation to claim exemption has gone. The Registrar has to select and refer cases to the Court, and, as I have said, the Board of Trade can direct the order in which such cases are heard. Indeed, the fact that this has now been inserted in the Bill for the first time means that, on the order in which cases can be heard, questions can be raised on the Floor of the House through the Secretary of State. Over a period of time, I would have thought that case law would have been built up sufficiently to guide both manufacturers and suppliers who are registered and the Registrar himself in his decision whether or not he would offer evidence in future cases.
That, I think, summarises fairly concisely, at not too great a length, the effect of the Amendment that I am now moving and the consequential Amendments that follow. They are perhaps much more complicated than they seem to be on the Notice Paper and if hon. Members have not had sufficient time to consider them I apologise to the Committee. They were put down on Thursday night with a number of other Amendments of various kinds and although there has been a short time in which to consider them I hope that hon. Members will find them acceptable. I commend them to my right hon. Friend and to the Committee.
The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Hall) said that he hoped that the Amendment and those that are consequential upon it will go through the Committee—I think his exact words were "without significant adjustment." He and the Government have taken every precaution to ensure that they will go through without significant adjustment.
There will be, of course, opportunities on Report for looking at these matters afresh, but even the most active Members of the House who were here on Thursday night, awaiting these Amendments, wherever they might come from, would have found it very difficult to devise all the Amendments that they might wish to put to this compromise Amendment in that time. Moreover, they could not be sure that the Amendment would stay on the Notice Paper. They therefore had to put down their own name to ensure that they were not withdrawn and different Amendments substituted.
Although the hon. Member has moved this Amendment with great brevity and clarity—much greater brevity and clarity than we have had so far on the Bill—I think that we must examine the proposition much more carefully than he has done. Of course, it is true that these Amendments involve a substantial change in the Bill.
I was one of the hon. Members who heard, on Thursday night, that Amendments were being concocted somewhere in the House and I came in on Friday to try to discover what those Amendments might mean. I took them away for the weekend and I also used every other agency that I could lay my hands on to try to discover exactly what the Secretary of State was agreeing to do to his Bill. I was particularly interested to try to discover this, because I read again, after hearing it in the House, the interesting speech of the Secretary of State, when he introduced the Bill on Second Reading.
I know that he is a very forthright fellow and always says what he thinks, but it was very difficult to discover from his speech exactly what room for manœuvre was left—exactly what room for compromise was left, because the Secretary of State will recall that he said on Second Reading:
So now we come to the present position. It is now apparent that there is no half-way house. The choice is as simple as this".
Apparently, this simple choice was not appreciated by some of his followers and, therefore, they wanted to discover the halfway house which is now being presented to them. At the bottom of the same column the right hon. Gentleman said—it was not a hasty decision, he claimed, by the Government:
the Government have given very careful consideration to this matter and have decided, in the context of modernisation and the essential developments of a competitive economy, that the arguments in favour of ending resale price maintenance, with the safeguards set out in the Bill are conclusive."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1964; Vol. 691, c. 260–1.]
The right hon. Gentleman must explain to Members later. It might have been of assistance to the Committee if he had started off this debate today by explaining why the argument which was conclusive on 10th March has become inconclusive
today. He must explain to us why there was no halfway house available on 10th March, but he managed to discover one late on Thursday night. As I did not derive much enlightenment from reading the Second Reading speech of the Secretary of State as to what he had done, I did my best to discover it through the newspapers. I read The Times headlines on Friday, which said:
Mr. Heath goes part of the way.
I have no doubt that today Mr. Heath will describe to us exactly which part of the way he has gone. The second headline in The Times on Friday was:
Prices Bill rebels soothed.
I do not know how many hon. Members opposing the Bill have been soothed. I am waiting to see whether the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) has been soothed. He is not the kind of hon. Member who is easily soothed. I hope that he will stick to the principles which he was upholding in the Second Reading debate.
Then, we had in The Times, on Saturday, which had been able to study more carefully what had been done on the Thursday night, the headlines:
Concessions on prices Bill, M.P.s claim. Stigma ended; Commons control restored. Ministers contend compromise leaves pattern intact.
What we have to discover is whether, in fact, Commons control has been restored, or whether the pattern is left intact. It cannot be both of these things.
I must confess that when I examined this more carefully I thought that here was one problem that had been solved even though it was not a problem directly related to the Bill. I have never had an exaggerated faith in the resolution either of Tory Ministers or Tory rebels, but I think that what we have discovered—the one problem that has been solved by all these discussions—is what happens when a resistible force meets a movable object. That is what has really happened.
There is another alternative. It may be that whet the Secretary of State has done by this most brilliant manoeuvre is to anger his own party without introducing a good Bill. That may be so; indeed, such is the navigating skill of the Secretary of State that he has managed, in the same journey, to wreck himself on both Scylla and Charybdis. This is a brilliant achievement after all his exertions. But it remains for the Committee to discover exactly what has happened, especially about all those who have been so alarmed by the right hon. Gentleman's Measure. I have been trying to discover exactly what this new procedure means.
I will explain to the hon. Member very clearly why two or three of my hon. Friends and I have put our names to several of these Amendments. The hon. Member is well aware of the procedure of the House, being one of its oldest Members, and he knows that on some occasions when Bills are introduced Governments become alarmed by the opposition aroused among their own back benchers. On such occasions negotiations often take place between the Front Bench and Government back benchers, with a view to introducing entirely different Amendments. If that were to occur some of the original Amendments put down by the rebels might be withdrawn, and the Committee might be deprived of the opportunity of discussing the wise thoughts of the hon. Member. That would be most unfair to the House.
I would hate to think that the hon. Member might be soothed—I believe that that is the word used in The Times—into being prevented from presenting to the Committee the view that he put in the Second Reading debate. I studied his Second Reading speech, so he must be careful about taunting other hon. Members on the question whether or not they understand the Amendments. In that speech he made it clear to the House that he thought that the Government's Bill was such a bad one that it could not be properly amended at all. The hon. Member commended the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Padley) and said that he was gratified to hear that speech, because it
proved that the Bill was incapable of Amendment. He went on to say:
I only hope that he will believe with me that the best thing to do is to give time for all parties in this House to re-considered the Bill to see whether they can produce a better one, instead of trying to make an extremely bad Bill only a very little bit worse."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1964; Vol. 691, c. 300.]
The hon. Member will remember that the House, without any conspicuous assistance from hon. Members opposite, decided against me. The House having decided that the Bill should have a Second Reading, there is nothing that I can do but accept the decision. If the hon. Member and his hon. Friends had felt any doubt about the matter they should have come into the Lobby with us.
The reasons why my hon. Friends did not vote on that occasion were clearly explained—[Interruption.] If I attempted to traverse that ground, Sir William, you would perhaps rule me out of order. Otherwise, I should be happy to do so. Anyway, it was explained by my hon. Friends that they wanted a Bill which would deal with monopolies properly and on a full scale, and that that was something that the Bill did not do. The hon. Member for Rugby also took that view on that occasion, but his view has now changed.
I am sure that he would not be content if he thought that we were merely making an extremely bad Bill a little bit worse or a little bit better. He would feel that he was wasting his energies. In fact, he has been much more victorious. He should be celebrating his victory, and should not be so ashamed. In The Times on Saturday he was certainly not as bashful as he has been today. Now he says that he has not achieved much. Perhaps that is part of the bargain he made with the Front Bench. I wonder why he did not move the Amendment. If he was so proud of it, and thinks that he has achieved what, in The Times, he referred to as an "honourable accommodation", one would have thought that he would be the very man to move the new proposition. But no; the hon. Member does not want to crow over his victory too much. We understand the reason; the more he crows over his victory the more humiliating is the position of the Secretary of State.
But when the hon. Member talked to The Times he was much less reticent than he has been today. I have a copy of the interview that he gave. So that the Committee may be clear what the Amendment means I ought to quote what the leader of the Tory rebels says is the meaning of this "honourable accommodation", as he calls it. Then the Secretary of State can tell us precisely whether or not that is his interpretation of the Amendment.
In The Times, the hon. Member said:
we have, however, secured a change of emphasis which is most important and will greatly assist in the future of the Bill. It is best summed up in the very important speech of Mr. Selwyn Lloyd, Lord Privy Seal, when he stated: 'Not all resale price maintenance is bad.' This was a complete change from the original idea in the Bill when it was introduced.
Does the Secretary of State say that it is a complete change? I shall be happy to give way so that he can make the position clear. Does he agree with the rebels? Does he agree with the leading rebel, that this marks a complete change in the Bill? Surely that is a very simple question. We are told that that is an honourable accommodation. It is a strange kind of honourable accommodation when one party is not prepared to say whether he agrees with the other party.
When the right hon. Gentleman speaks on the Amendment—if he ever does—perhaps he will tell us whether this marks a complete change. If he is not prepared to agree with the hon. Member for Rugby, and alleges that it is something less, I hope that the hon. Member for Rugby will recover his earlier worthier and more rebellious mood. If the Secretary of State is not prepared to concur with the view that this marks a complete change in the original idea of the Bill, the hon. Member has been tricked. And it is not only a question of tricking the hon. Member—that might be a comparatively simple enterprise—it is a question of tricking all those who have put their faith in the hon. Member. Certainly, many people have been led to believe that the hon. Member was going to back them throughout, and that he would stand up for their cause and fight for them to the end.
On Saturday he told the world, through The Times, or such members of the public as read The Times—and the word filters through to the others—that he had reached an accommodation which would satisfy those for whom he was fighting. But he went on to say much more, and I shall also quote it, because it is a matter of great concern to the Committee. He said:
We are now going on to the committee stage. The Government, I am sure, are going to approach this in the spirit of Mr. Lloyd's speech.
I wonder how he was sure of that? Mr. Lloyd's speech was a very important matter, coming from the Leader of the House. I would not like to accept all the rumours that have been going round, but we have, been told that the Secretary of State did not like the speech of the Leader of the House and would have preferred that he did not make it. Speaking as a House of Commons man, I would prefer that what Tory rebels regard as important speeches on important matters should be made in the House and not that on some ramshackle occasion outside it.
I think that it would have been better, if the Leader of the House intended to make what the hon. Member for Rugby thinks is very important concession about the Bill, that he should have made it to the House of Commons. At any rate, he might at least have been here when we are discussing the Measure and the major Amendment which has been prised out of the Secretary of State by the Leader of the House. He has had the assistance of the Government and of the Leader of the House, and we understand from some of the journals—and no doubt the Secretary of State will confirm this—that he has had also the assistance of the Chief Whip.
The hon. Gentleman was against this Amendment right from the beginning and has now lent his support to the Leader of the House, who, on the evidence of the hon. Member for Rugby—I hope that he will not go away at this point, because I am going to quote an even more telling part of his pronouncement on Saturday—has been responsible probably more than any other member of the Government for the Bill in its present form.
Let me come to the hon. Member for Rugby. We should be very sorry to lose the hon. Member. He said:
The Government, I am sure, are going to approach this in the spirit of Mr. Lloyd's speech. 'Not all resale price maintenance is bad.' We are already assured of good will in some very important Amendments. I feel it a happy augury that the major Amendments to Clauses 1, 2 and 6 have been signed by Conservatives who hold widely differing views on resale price maintenance.
Then the hon. Member went on:
One really important new factor is that by introducing the Board of Trade as a party to the proceedings, we have brought House of Commons control back.
Does that mean that in the original Bill House of Commons control had been removed? It cannot mean anything other than that if the hon. Member for Rugby is correct not merely in his general views, but in his interpretation of the meaning of the Government's original Bill. I think that it is fair to the Government to say that they had not the slightest idea, in their Bill, of leaving control to the House of Commons. The whole object was to hand it over to the Court, to make resale price maintenance a civil crime and to make any people who wanted to put up a case against it go to all the expense and through all the difficulty of presenting their point. There was no question in the original Bill of the Board of Trade being able to pick and choose which industries or which different forms of product might or might not have to be referred to the Court.
However, according to the hon. Member for Rugby, this has now been decided in a different sense. If that is true, then the Amendment in the later Clause which is coupled with this Amendment, where the name of the Board of Trade is introduced, means, according to the hon. Member for Rugby, that the Board of Trade will decide not merely the order in which these matters are referred to the Court, as was hinted by the hon. Member who has just spoken, but that the Board of Trade will decide, in fact, whether particular products shall be referred to the Court at all.
The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. I can understand him shaking his head, but he must fight it out with the hon. Member for Rugby. This is the loose end that was not tied up and we want it tied up. I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. He is saying, of course, that the Board of Trade will hardly have a scrap more power than before, that the Government only put that in to fool the hon. Member for Rugby. I can understand the sort of speech which the right hon. Gentleman will make. He will say, "It was getting very late at night on Thursday. We did not know when the House would rise and we had to get the Amendments in before it did rise. We had to send people up in case the House collapsed before we could do that. We had another engagement on Friday and we had to get the thing finished then and there. We only had to say to the hon. Member for Rugby that we would put in this Clause saying that the Board of Trade would have something to do with it and he would be satisfied."
The hon. Gentleman has been reading a little fiction. He really must not take as an indication of what happened, or what did not happen, some reports in the newspapers. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all of us who put our names to the Amendment to which he is referring, the consequential Amendment, really meant what we said. I explained in an earlier speech that the Board of Trade's direction referred only to the order in which cases should be referred to the Court. This is clear not only to myself but also to other right hon. and hon. Members who put their names to the Amendment.
I think that that is perfectly true. The purpose of a Committee stage is to discover what hon. Members opposite decided in private. That is what we are trying to do. We are trying to extract it, and we are succeeding bit by bit even without the assistance of the Secretary of State.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his elucidation, because until he began I did not know what the Amendment meant, and I still have doubts. Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that we appear to be introducing a new practice in the Board of Trade, which, of course, does not exist?
Presumably the intention is that one of the officers of the Board of Trade shall act in the name of this non-existent body and, possibly, postpone the hearing of any case for a year or two by the simple adjustment of priorities.
Is the Board of Trade to hear representations from the trade associations concerned before it makes its decision? If so, it will be hearing evidence subsequently to be submitted to a tribunal and will, therefore, be able to operate a political decision which may rob the tribunal of its independence and undermine its authority.
I quite agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, this Clause introduces the possibility of every form of jobbery. Indeed, that is obvious. I cannot understand why the Secretary of State did not think of it originally. It opens up the possibility of widespread corruption.
Going back to the point of the hon. Gentleman, he says that the Board of Trade's discretion will only affect the order in which these matters are dealt with. As my hon. Friend for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) indicated, that could be serious enough, but the hon. Member for Rugby has a different understanding of the accommodation. The hon. Member shakes his head. He thinks that this a very minor adjustment. It is only a question of the priority of the cases referred to the Court by the Board of Trade.
But that is not what the hon. Member said to The Times. I am not reading fiction—leading articles of The Times, or anything of that sort; I am reading what was said to The Times by the hon. Member for Rugby and I repeat the words for the benefit of the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall). The hon. Member said:
One really important new factor is that by introducing the Board of Trade as a party to the proceedings, we have brought House of Commons control back.
If the hon. Member says to me that those words mean the same as what the hon. Gentleman said was the new factor being introduced, then words have lost their meaning.
The hon. Gentleman is only emphasising what I said in my introductory speech, namely, that as far as the Board's power to direct the Registrar concerning the order in which cases are heard is concerned, this enables cases to be raised on the Floor of the House. In that respect it has reintroduced control of the House.
I must leave it to the Committee to judge between myself and the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Rugby. I have read clearly to the Committee what is the interpretation of the hon. Member for Rugby of what was decided. I say—if words still retain their old meaning, if the English language has not been changed since 10th March in this connotation—that what the hon. Gentleman has said to the Committee is different from what the hon. Member for Rugby said to The Times.
We shall hear from the Secretary of State. He will wish to announce the concessions which have been made and he will be gratified at the support of the hon. Member for Wycombe. But he will still have to explain to the hon. Member for. Rugby whether there is House of Commons control left or not. As has already been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West, if the Board of Trade can decide for ever whether it will refer matters to the Court, or not, the real power over whether resale price maintenance is to be abandoned in respect of certain ranges of goods will rest with the Board of Trade. If that was all that the Government wished to do they need not have introduced this Bill at all.
My hon. and learned Friend may have assumed that originally in the Bill there was a proper judicial process dealing with these matters. I never made such an assumption myself. I do not believe that judges are the best people to decide this kind of question. These are not judicial questions at all, these are economic questions. All that this helps to confirm is the case made from hon. Members on this side of the Committee during the Second Reading debate, that an entirely different kind of Bill should have been introduced.
During the Second Reading debate my hon. Friends insisted that it would have been much better if a different kind of Bill altogether had been introduced. It seems that the Government have partly accepted that advice. But they have not introduced a better Bill and entirely—
I am sorry to have to interrupt my hon. Friend again. He is making an excellent speech. I am seeking information. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) suggested that, somehow or other, judges should, at some time, have something to do with this. As I read these Amendments they certainly contain nothing of that. We have a Clause appointing three new judges, with an estimate of the cost of that operation, and the Amendment suggests that the Registrar's decision on almost every vital matter shall be final. The Registrar decides who shall go on the list, and publishes the list. The list is not open to objection or exception. So, once we have gone through the long political process of making the Board of Trade responsible first to Parliament, and presumably the decision of the Board of Trade being satisfactory to Parliament, the Registrar decides the details. It may be that we shall save the cost of the three judges.
That may be the first of a series of powerful speeches which I am sure that my hon. Friend will contribute to the debates of the Committee. I look forward to hearing from him again.
I do not think that the position in the country has altered. The hon. Member for Rugby, and those who supported him, should recognise that they have a very big obligation to the people whose hopes they have raised. They are not entitled to say that they have reached an honourable accommodation with the Government when all the signs are that the accommodation was very far from honourable.
I should like to read to the Committee a letter which I have received among the numerous letters which I have had on this subject and which have come from different parts of the country. I wish to quote this letter to show hon. Members opposite, and particularly those who opposed the
Government on Second Reading, what is the feeling in the country on this subject. The letter comes from a newsagent in Flintshire. I have the name and address but I do not propose to give it because that might involve the man in some difficulty. I think that this letter will be of general interest to the Committee and I have a particular reason why I should be entitled to read it:
This is from a firm which controls 10 General Election votes. Hitherto these votes have always gone Tory. We wouldn't have dreamt of voting any other way. But never again, Our late party is rotten—hating and betraying its friends, fearing its enemies. Nye Bevan was right by God, Nye Bevan was right. Tories are lower than vermin.
It goes on:
And when Tories like me talk like this we reckon even a nit-wit like Home should pack up.
I am not saying that I would defend all these propositions, but they are worthy of consideration by the Committee. That is the feeling outside in many quarters, and it is the feeling that was roused among people who thought that they would be represented by the hon. Member for Rugby and some other hon. Members. So I hope that these hon. Members will not run away from the battlefield too hastily. I hope that they will stay and examine this Bill extremely carefully, as the rest of us intend to do. I hope that they will reckon and remember that it was introduced by the Secetary of State as a most important Bill, one that played a major part in their whole strategy.
I have been watching to see whether we should have present at our debates the right hon. Member for Flint, West (Mr. Birch) who sometimes participates and who, I understand, was one of the architects of this new Government. Here we have an assembly enthusiastic with what I suppose the right hon. Member would call a "glad confident morning". There are not many signs of glad confidence on the faces of hon. Member's opposite.
The Government have introduced a Measure which they have not thought out at all. They have not worked out the details and they are trying to extricate themselves from the appallingly complicated position into which they have got themselves. No one thinks that as a result we shall get a good Measure. All we shall get is a compromise between the Government and the rebels on the benches opposite, a compromise which, apparently, some of them do not even begin to understand.
Therefore, the Secretary of State has a duty placed upon him. When he speaks in these debates he must say absolutely clearly what will be the consequence of all these Amendments which have been cooked up at a late hour at night. He must explain them in terms which everyone can understand and leave no dubiety at all. If he does that, and performs his duty to the Committee in that respect, he will succeed once again in splitting his party from top to bottom.
I, too, have a considerable interest in this Amendment. Unlike the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot), I found the meaning apparent when I read it; although there are some aspects which I think require further clarification, because there are some things that have occurred to people as possibilities that I do not think are possibilities. The first conclusion we arrive at is that it is not the case that, were this Amendment accepted, the Registrar would be at liberty not to refer any registered agreements to the Restrictive Practices Court. The word "all" is self-explanatory in respect of goods
of which particulars are for the time being entered in the register.
So the idea that various agreements may remain indefinitely quiescent and not be referred to the Court is not compatible with the specific injunction that
it shall be the duty of the Registrar to prepare, compile and maintain,
make reference to the Court…in respect of all goods of which particulars are for the time being entered in the register.
I should appreciate clarification from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, because if this Amendment is accepted by the Government it will be he who, to a considerable extent, will be using powers it confers. Therefore, we must know quite clearly how these powers will be used. If it were the case that, although all agreements registered had to be referred to the Court, nevertheless in a number of cases the Registrar might refer them to the Court accompanied by a statement that he did
not intend to offer any evidence to support the contention that they were contrary to public interest, an interesting situation would arise.
Unless this information were conveyed in advance to the parties concerned they would be put to the expense of proving a case which would not be heard. It would not be heard because it would not need to be heard. Whatever amendments are put into Clause 8, it is difficult to see how the court could reimburse costs which had not taken place in court. This is a very real problem. If it is the intention of this Amendment that the Registrar should be enabled to refer cases formally to the Court it will amount to a Registrar's version of a nolle prosequi in a criminal case.
The hon. Member referred to something I said. I hope he will appreciate that when we are discussing eight or nine Amendments to five or six Clauses it is not always easy to find a reference and jump in with a correction at once, but if he refers to Clause 6 he will find that notwithstanding the Amendment which I understand he is either supporting or opposing—Amendment No. 115—the Clause says:
the fact that goods of any class are included in a list so published shall be conclusive evidence that they are goods in respect of which notice has been duly so given; and
the fact that goods are not included in any class in a list so published shall be prima facie evidence that they are not goods in respect of which notice has been duly so given.
Then it adds:
For the purposes of compiling any such list or of making references to the Court under the said section 5, the Registrar may combine or divide the goods in respect of which notice is given to him under this section into such classes as appear to him to be appropriate for that purpose.
All that is subject to the priorities laid down by the Board of Trade by the preceding Amendment which we are discussing collaterally with this one. The hon. Member suggested that it is the duty of the Registrar to behave properly, but I think it would tax the wisdom of Sir Man Herbert to devise how a Registrar could advise the judge by accident or design.
I was not concerned whether the judges could proceed against the Registrar, nor about the position vis-à-vis the judges and the Registrar, but vis-à-vis interested parties, that is to say, parties who, if this Amendment is not accepted and the Bill remains as originally introduced, would under the procedure of the Bill apply for exemption. I am concerned that when the Court decided to hear their application for exemption they would be at liberty to offer evidence.
I take it that Amendment No. 115, which is the main one of substance in the group being considered with Amendment No. 1, means that when the Court under this proceeding has referred to it a list of commodities, or one commodity, it might or might not be the case—there is no further choice—that the Registrar would offer evidence that these restrictive agreements, these examples of r.p.m., are contrary to the public interest. If he does not offer any such evidence we still do not know whether the Court will presume a priori that the absence of evidence by the Registrar means that exemption should be granted, or whether the Court will presume a priori that in the absence of evidence—even when the Registrar has not made a charge as it were—the onus lies on the interested parties who wish to avail themselves of r.p.m. to prove their case. About this I am still considerably perplexed, because it is not covered by Amendment No. 115.
I thought I mentioned in my few remarks to the Committee that the precedent had been established in effect by the Restrictive Trade Practices Act procedure in the books case. In that case the Registrar did not offer evidence.
That may be a precedent, but unfortunately in Clause 5(2) and (3) the Bill states that as well as one to three gateways being established, there is the overriding question of detriment to the public as consumers and users. Unless substantially modified, the whole of Clause 5 means that the Court has not any power to grant exemption unless one of these gateways is proved. Merely for the Registrar to say that there is no evidence to the contrary of what has not been submitted in justification, does not enable the Court to grant exemption on grounds of evidence which has not been offered.
What it boils down to is that under Amendment No. 115 even if the Registrar brings a case—and he has to bring all registered cases under the Amendment—and offers no evidence, the parties who wish to continue those resale price maintenance registered practices still have to go to the Court and prove one of the gateways. So they are still involved in the entire cost of preparing and proving a case whatever may be the attitude, hostile or friendly or completely uncommitted, of the Registrar. We must be quite clear about what the Amendment does not do. It does not relieve the parties who wish to continue resale price maintenance of the cost of preparing their case and of the obligations to present it if they wish to receive exemption. That must be absolutely clear in respect of the Amendment.
We hope that there will be later Amendments—although I must be careful not to get out of order—concerned with the question of costs when exemption is successfully established, but we are not taking that into consideration in discussing Amendment No. 1. I wanted to dispel any belief that this Amendment would enable some resale price maintenance agreements to continue without a case having to be proved to defend them, either because they were not referred to the Restrictive Practices Court (which would be incompatible with the word "all" in line 5 of the Amendment) or alternatively, because, having been referred, no evidence need be offered because the Registrar declared them to be innocuous. If it were the intention that they should be referred to the Court and do not need to prove a gateway, it is self-evident that very substantial Amendment of Clause 5 would be required.
Since the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) kindly referred to me, I wish to inform him that if I do not feel that there is any form of concession about anything, I do not take that lying down. On the other hand, I see a concession if there is one, even if it is modest.
We all enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member—and he certainly enjoyed it. He started by saying that there was a lot of shadow and no substance in this debate, but he spent a large part of his speech in trying to indicate what an enormous give-way there was and what a hole it made in the Bill, but we all enjoyed the speech nevertheless, though it was part of a non sequitur.
It would not do to talk about the Amendment No. 147 in my name, but I draw the attention of the Board of Trade to it. It is not likely to be called but it mentions many items which bear on the last speech and which are not included in this Amendment.
The circumstances are unhappy. Opposition is opposition, and one can have fun and games about it, but it is a little difficult to give consideration to a Bill when such a mass of Amendments have been put down at short notice. It has to be assumed that this Amendment will be accepted. I cannot help feeling that there was a certain amount of inspiration behind it. If it is accepted, it alters the Bill fundamentally as a piece of draftsmanship, although not the purpose of the Bill, and it affects a whole mass of other Amendments which the Chair will be inclined to rule out of order if for no other reason than that they lack continuity in the light of this Amendment.
In the circumstances, it is a little hard for my right hon. Friend to dragoon this Measure through the Committee on three days running without allowing hon. Members the opportunity adequately to consider the Amendments. I want to be constructive. Everybody knows what I think about the Bill. I do not like it. But I want to be constructive. I want to try to make it a better Bill—and that must be my right hon. Friend's purpose, too. At any rate in this Amendment I see a small dent in the iron curtain with which he has surrounded himself at the Board of Trade, and I hope that we shall make a few more dents. I gather that hon. Members opposite do not regard it as a dent. There is no greater critic than I of the Bill in many ways, but I shall be true to myself. When something is an advance I shall make no capital out of it but accept it as an advance.
Will the hon. Member say whether he still holds the view which he stated to his constituents on Friday that he appreciated his right hon. Friend's intention to meet in some part the opposition but that it appeared that "shouting lather than substance" had been the order of the day? He added, "The Bill will still be a bad Bill and will require hardly less consideration in Committee".
Do I still hold that view? Absolutely. I have said so. It is a misquotation. It was, "shadow rather than substance", but otherwise I have no objection to a single word of it. It is a bad Bill and will remain a bad Bill, and I shall do my best to improve it. But as a back pencil Member I cannot do much, here and now; but I will do what I can to make it better. What is wrong with that?
I shall do exactly what I think fit, and I will not be exercised in that matter by any fiddling and rigging which goes on with Amendments. I know that game only too well.
If I am satisfied with what my right hon. Friend does, I shall say so. In that event, I shall not move the Amendment to which we have a certain number of names attached and to which I have referred in a roundabout way. If it is moved and the Committee refuses permission for its withdrawal, then hon. Members opposite will be left in suspended animation, or they can vote against the principle which they hold much more strongly than anyone else in the House resale price maintenance. Let them take their own medicine—and shake the bottle well.
May I ask my right hon. Friend some questions? I find it difficult to absorb all his medicine, whcih is put to us so rapidly. These Amendments are far-reaching in many ways in the drafting of the Bill. I am still not clear whether the Registrar or the Board of Trade will classify the goods. Who will classify them? Is there an appeal to the court against such classification? Will such classification be published in the Gazette or somewhere else where one may see it? People such as bodies of retailers will want to keep in touch with their suppliers in matters in which they have a large trade interest. This ought not to go in any way—I will not say "behind locked doors"—without full knowledge and opportunity for the proper rights to be used.
I will leave my remarks there on this Amendment. I do not think that this is a big advance, but it is an advance and any advance however little, will be welcomed by me in the course of these debates.
The confusion on the Conservative benches is comic but the effect of the proposals on a number of small traders who put their whole savings into small businesses and who see themselves being destroyed is not comic. This is a serious threat to the livelihood of many people.
The Tory Party is a party which, if it stands for anything, stands for continuity, for the maintenance of the customs of the realm where they have been worked out, for opposition to change for the sake of change where it is not properly justified. These are doctrines which I have often heard put forward from Conservative benches and elsewhere as a jutification for the philosophy of that Party. Of late, both on the Common Market and on this issue, they have suddenly taken a plunge into doctrinaire acts for which they are entirely unfitted. This is a doctrinaire Bill.
I said that this was a doctrinaire Bill. The right hon. Gentleman committed himself to a doctrine which he said did not admit of compromise, but he has had to bring forward Amendments the purpose of which is to pretend that a compromise has been made. What have these Amendments done to save the situation of people who were being injured by the Bill? I will quote from the hon. and gallant Member for Buckingham (Sir F. Markham), who became a great hero in his constituency and who had the headlines in the Press on three days for the gallantry of his actions. He said,
At the last election, many of us throughout the land could give pledges to some of our most earnest workers and keenest questioners that the Tory Party would not interfere with resale price maintenance. We could do that on the authority not only of the Lloyd Jacob Report but of speeches in the House of Commons by men of the distinction of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) and my right hon. Friend who is now Minister of Defence.
Those were pledges given by hon. Members opposite. They were not that the Board of Trade might have some influence on the order in which agreements which they were pledged to preserve, but which are now declared to be illegal, might be considered for re-legalising. That was not the complaint that was being made.
The hon. Gentleman went on to say:
This Bill strikes at the little man. It eases him out because, as the Secretary of State has said, the little man somehow or other is redundant in the Secretary of State's pattern of what the future should be."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1964; Vol. 691, c. 354–6.]
Those are the pledges that the rebels have made in their constituencies. Those are the pledges they have made to their chambers of trade. Are they now to tell us, "Oh, we've got a compromise, an honourable arrangement"—let them call it what they will—"with the Secretary of State that saves the position"?
If that is so, will they tell us what is the fundamental change in this Bill that has altered the position of these people whom these rebels are pledged to stand by? These Amendments are not changes in substance. There is a sort of papal dispensation for the perjury of the rebels who, having pledged themselves to the interests of their constituents, now want to escape from their undertakings.
I have one very fundamental objection to this whole type of procedure. I believe profoundly in the independence of the law in our constitution. There is nothing worse than to bring judges into political decisions—not only because I think that they are not very good at political decisions but because it undermines their authority, their independence, the sanctity, if I may so term it, of their position when they are dealing with questions that really are their business. For Governments, whenever they are in difficulty, whether it be because of a scandal or whatever the cause, to try to escape from their difficulties by calling in aid the reputation of a judge is to degrade the judge and the judicial system.
Here, we are passing to the judges decisions of a purely political nature so that the Government can escape responsibility for them. It is the business of the right hon. Gentleman, as Secretary of State in charge of that Department, to decide where the public interest lies. The question of where the public interest lies is essentially a political question, it is one for which Government should take responsibility and for which Government should answer in this House.
The matters set out in Clause 5(2) are purely political questions, not questions of facts. They are estimates of what may happen in the future; estimates of whether
…the quality of the goods…would be substantially reduced to the detriment of the public…
…the number of establishments in which the goods are sold by retail would be substantially reduced…
or whether services provided would cease or be reduced or whether the
…the resulting detriment would outweigh any detriment to the public as consumers…
These are all matters of political speculation. They are not justiciable issues. The are not matters for which judges, are trained or qualified to decide.
By making them matters for judicial decision we degrade the really judicial decisions which judges are required to make in court and whose impartiality and validity in making these decisions become part of our Constitution. I must protest, as I have done on other occasions with other Bills, against the involvement of the judiciary in purely political questions.
An Amendment in my name has not been selected, and I mention it only because in it I referred to registration. The registration that I wished to provide was registration with the Board of Trade. I wanted the Board of Trade itself to take the decision whether a particular agreement was or was not in conformity with the public interest. I also wanted to provide that there could be a reference to an inquiry held by an inspector of the Ministry for decision by the Minister. If we are to deal with this mattes by registration, let it be done in a meaningful way by the Minister who should be responsible.
The present Amendment provides that registration shall be with the registrar of a court but, unlike the case in every other court, the registrar is to be outside the control of the judges of the court. Instead of having the judges in charge of their own court, with the registrar their servant, we are making the registrar independent and, in fact, in control of the judges. That seems to me to put judges in a quite intolerable position.
Where, over and above that, one proceeds to it produce Government into the judicial process by saying that it shall be a Minister who shall decide the order in which these references are heard, picking and choosing from among the litigants in order to place them in a politically desirable order, that seems to me to be an involvement of political decision hi judicial process which is totally contrary to our customs. I shall be horrified if judges of the High Court are prepared to accept such an assignment.
This is a doctrinaire interference with an established and customary method of distribution, done not case by case, by picking out instances where a particular agreement may be against the public interest, but by a broad general condemnation. My view is that mankind has suffered much from doctrinaires and the worst of all doctrinaires have been the free trade ones. They depopulated Scotland. 'They created the Black Country. They made appalling difficulties for India. These were not bad men. They were sincere men who believed passionately in an idea which they were prepared to impose in face of all experience, and who had heard of everything save the great exhortation of Oliver Cromwell:
I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.
I pass that advice on to the Secretary of State who is going to cause great suffering for a doctrine without any established evidence that it will do anybody the east good.
I found it difficult to follow the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) in a Second Reading speech not apparently mainly on the Bill at all. I might, however, dwell for a moment on one or two occasions when he dealt with the Bill. When he came to it en passant, he gave me the impression, which I hope he will correct if I am wrong, that he disapproved of the Bill entirely, that he was against the principle of it and that he was in favour of keeping our present system of distribution exactly as it is. If that is what he felt, then why the devil was he not with us on Second Reading?
If the hon. Member will read the Amendment in my name, to which I referred, he will see what I should have liked to have done. I entirely recognise that there may be instances in which these agreements are contrary to the public interest. Let those instances be arraigned and let those who bring a charge against those instances prove it. This is what I have suggested in the Amendment, and this is what I believe ought to be done.
The hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) reminded my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) that most of his speech was out of order. I suggest that the hon. Member is equally out of order.
I would not have pursued the matter of the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Northampton further except that the hon. and learned Member went on to read to many of us a substantial lecture on the honourable course which we were supposed to take from now on. Somehow or other the hon. and learned Member seems to have acquired knowledge of the pledges that we have made to our constituents. I do not know how. Has he had access to my postbag? If so, how? I have made no public statement on this except on Second Reading and I should be interested to know how the hon. and learned Member came by this information. After the iniquity of the hon. and learned Member's conduct on Second Reading we are prepared to take our notions of honour from somewhere else. [An HON. MEMBER: "Profumo."] I do not think that the hon. Member has read this evening's papers.
I move to the speech of the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot). I do not take the least exception to his merry frolic on subjects which were more or less germane to the Amendment, but he really should not put his name to an Amendment which he does not understand. This is not the practice of the Committee. Had he been in any apprehension as to whether the Amendment was to be withdrawn or not he should have consulted one of the signatories and we would have assured him that there was no chance. The hon. Member cannot excuse putting his name on an Amendment in which obviously he does not very much believe. I could wish that we had made a convert, but I am certain that we have not. If the hon. Member understood the Amendment, I refer him to his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton. After hearing the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale saying that a statement of mine that we had brought in some form of Parliamentary control was nonsense and that we had brought none, the hon. and learned Member proceeded to say that we had wrecked the Bill by bringing it in. Both cannot be right.
If the hon. Member seeks to convert me, may I ask to what he is seeking to convert me? What is the proposition that he wants me to accept? Is he asking me to accept the Bill which he told The Times on Friday had been completely changed? If the hon. Member will explain to me I will listen to the Secretary of State carefully to find out whether he agrees. I put my name to an Amendment to sort out these difficulties and so far we have not got any further.
I am not seeking to convert the hon. Member to anything. The more convinced cannibal will never lose his taste for human flesh. If the hon. Member will read my statement he will find that I did not say that the Bill had been entirely changed. He will see that I said that the emphasis was changed, and that I will maintain. The basic trouble about the hon. Member is that he is extremely jealous of the way we behave on this side of the Committee. Had he and his hon. Friends gone as far as my hon. Friends and I did on Second Reading they would have been thrown out of their party again, as sure as God made little apples, and they would have remained in humiliating seclusion until they were allowed to crawl back again, as they crawled back last time.
We do not do that in the Conservative Party. I take the opportunity of pointing out that if Parliament is to mean anything the electorate must have a Conservative Government, because they alone listen to their own back-benchers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has listened to us on the back benches. We have not had every-thing we wanted and I do not think that he has had everything he wanted, but we have reached an honourable accommodation.
The explanation of this Amendment was given very clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall). I am only sorry that the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale could not understand his extremely clear exposition of it. The Amendment is perfectly clear in its intention. It is perfectly clear even in its limitation. It represents a conscientious effort to satisfy a number of differing points of view and, as such, I commend it to the Committee.
We want to be clear about this. I gather that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends are concerned about two matters in particular, one, the point about stigma attaching to resale price maintenance agreements, the other the onus of proof. Does he agree that the Amendment makes no concession whatever in either of those respects?
On the same point, the hon. Gentleman will recall that in his speech on Second Reading he said:
Once the Bill is through, the small trader will not have a chance."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1964; Vol. 691, c. 303.]
Is it the hon. Gentleman's contention that that situation has been altered? If so, will he explain exactly in what degree it has been altered?
I must apologise to the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) for not being allowed to answer him. I was about to do so when I was interrupted by his hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot). In fact, the stigma has been removed, and I am delighted that this is so.
Really, I cannot—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I cannot do that without giving the hon. and learned Gentleman a lesson in the English language. To return to the point reasonably made by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] At the moment, in the general roarings of the monkey house, the point has gone out of my mind. Will the hon. Gentleman kindly make it again?
I apologise to my hon. and learned Friend if I interrupted at the wrong moment. I thought that the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) was escaping the question which my hon. and learned Friend had put. I apologise to both.
I was referring to something said by the hon. Gentleman on Second Reading. I do not say this with any disrespect. I know that it is often difficult to be a rebel, and perhaps the reason why the Government are not so worried about the hon. Gentleman's rebellion is that the rebellion has collapsed so readily. I quoted his words on Second Reading,
Once the Bill is through, the small trader will not have a chance".
That was a very emphatic statement, and it would take a quite big Amendment of the Bill to alter the situation. If the hon. Gentleman claims that there has been
a big Amendment made in the Bill—what he previously spoke of as a complete change—let him boast about it. The more he boasts, the better shall we enjoy listening to the Secretary of State's speech.
To produce that sort of point when we are still discussing Amendment No. 1 is just nonsense. We have a great number of Amendments before us, and to ask whether I think that the small trader will have a chance by the time we have finished is to assume in me a capacity with the crystal ball which I do not possess.
On Second Reading, I and some of my hon. Friends who believed that what we were doing was right voted against the Bill. We were overruled by the House of Commons, while the whole of the Labour Opposition were skulking in various holes, not daring to admit their desire, which they have always had, to destroy the small shopkeeper. I hope that the Committee will remember that the party opposite has entirely forfeited any right whatever even to comment on the Bill and that we shall pass these particular Amendments without any Division at all.
It is all very confusing. The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) referred to this Amendment as being a dent in the iron curtain. Somehow, I do not think that "iron curtain" is quite the right metaphor to use when referring to the Bill. I should have thought that "maze" would have been a more suitable word to use, though I grant that the use of this word would require the hon. Gentleman to find an alternative for "dent".
The hon. Gentleman was referring to the Secretary of State as the iron curtain, so this is a dent in the right hon. Gentleman. It makes it all the more confusing.
The procedure is becoming increasingly complicated, but I hope that we shall be told in reply what is the net effect of the Amendment, As I understand it, it will not alter the onus of proof. The onus of proof will still rest on the retailer. [Interruption.] I hope that this will be made clear, so that we know what is happening.
As I understand, the suppliers will give notice that they wish to claim exemption, and then the Registrar will draw up the list. The Board of Trade will then decide the order in which the items on the list will go before the Court. Who will classify the goods? Presumably, the Registrar will classify the goods, but it is not clear whether the Board of Trade, in deciding the order in which they go before the Court, will have any say in deciding the classification of the goods. Perhaps this will be made clear.
Next, there is the point about submitting evidence. Let us suppose that the Registrar has drawn up the list and the Board of Trade has decided the order, but the Registrar decides that, notwithstanding the decision of the Board of Trade, he does not wish to submit any evidence. What will happen then? Presumably, as some hon. Members have pointed out, the supplier applying for exemption will still have to give evidence to prove that one or other of the gateways is relevant to the particular application.
This is a serious point. If we have reached the stage when the Board of Trade has decided that a particular class of goods should be taken to the Court, but the Registrar has, for some reason or other, decided not to submit any evidence, what happens then? Presumably, the case will still have to be put to the Court. Surely, this must be so. The Court will have to be satisfied that one of the gateways is relevant, to put it in that way. I cannot see how one avoids that. However, if I am wrong, I shall be only too pleased to have this point at least cleared up, although it will not satisfy me on my main objection, that the procedure is becoming increasingly complicated.
We are led to the conclusion that this is a political and economic matter. It is not really a judicial problem. We shall get a profusion of political, economic and judicial decisions. I am, therefore, strengthened in my view that this is a matter which is more appropriate for special consideration by a special branch of the Monopolies Commission, but I cannot argue that.
I emphasise that the conclusion to which one is led is that this is not a matter for a court and judges. We are already introducing a number of stages which, as I say, are political based on economic and other considerations. I am very doubtful about how this will work out and I am not at all sure of the net effect of this Amendment. I hope that, if some hon. Members are not satisfied either by the Clause or by the Amendment, we shall by the end of this debate be a little clearer in our minds about what will happen.
I was very grateful for the speech of the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) because it raised matters which I first thought I might not be able to discuss. The hon. Member raised the question of the attitude of the Labour Party on Second Reading and the constitutional aspect of whether one should vote against Second Reading or Third Reading. He raised the question of the desirability of Labour lawyers. He raised the question of whether the rebels had receded from their position. He raised the problem of the desirability of private conversations between members of one party discussing a Measure after Second Reading and on the eve of the Committee stage. These are matters which I propose to deal with in more detail and seriatim before coming to the Amendments, on which I shall talk with less confidence and certitude.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade) said that he was not sure what the Clause meant. I doubt whether anyone is sure what it means. The only person who has spoken with certitude on the matter is the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall). If he is right in his view of what the Clause means, his interpretation differs from that of every other hon. Member who has spoken. The hon. Member has put forward a meaning to the Clause which may well be correct but judicially and legally indefensible.
This is the problem, and it may well be that my right hon. Friends may come to the conclusion that, when a man of the ability and distinction of the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West says, "I do not understand the Clause" and humbly concludes by saying, "I hope that in the course of the debate I shall get some enlightenment on it", he was paying a just tribute to their wisdom. Whether the hon. Member will get enlightenment, I do not know. I am not sure that enlightenment as to the meaning of something on which we are legislating is adequate. I should like to have a little more than that.
The hon. Member for Rugby, who was rather tilting at non-existent political windmills, ended with a firm reproof of my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot). He said, "Fancy raising matters like this on the first Amendment". But we are discussing Amendments to Clause 1, Clause 5, Clause 6 a id the Schedules collectively. Apart from that, we are discussing clearly implied Amendments to every Clause. One of the Amendments on the Notice Paper which it would be out of order to discuss now repeals the very provision of Clause 5 or Clause 6 which we are discussing and seeking to amend. By the time that we reach the Amendment concerning certain directions the power of giving directions may well have been repealed. Before the Question is put affirmatively on the last of the collective Amendments we are discussing, it may be that we shall find that the Clause has become nugatory.
I have listened intently to what has been said. I have worked with pencil and paper ever since your distinguished predecessor in the Chair, Dr. King, announced the order of the debate. You will know, Dr. King, that for us humble members of this distinguished assembly no information was available until that announcement was made. We cannot prepare speeches in Committee. We do not know what will be discussed collectively. We must try, while the opening speech is being made, to grasp all the collective implications of 10 highly complex Amendments, some of them lengthy, leaving out this and putting in that. One must run over the Bill almost with the speed that one has to run over a race card to find out the runners in the event and to get to know a little about each and to try to ally their respective merits.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale put a perfectly fair point to the hon. Member for Rugby who, I understand, is one of the putative parents of the Clause, although the hon. Member for Wycombe has assumed for the moment some parental responsibility in presenting it. What difference does this proposal make to the retailer? After all, we understood that people would go into battle on behalf of the retailer. I took part in the discussion of another Measure, presented by a private Member, which made no progress earlier this Session. I expressed, first, an intention of voting for the Second Reading; secondly, extreme doubts about whether I should be able to vote for the Third Reading; and, thirdly, extreme anxiety, because the one person who seemed not to be represented at all, the one person whose view could not be expressed, the one person who, as I understood it, could not make any representations to the tribunal, either as an individual or collectively with his fellows, or even as a member of an organisation, was the small shopkeeper.
I have heard people say, "If the small shopkeepers are efficient they may survive".
It was said on this side, too, I believe. I am making a partial statement, because I have not yet made up my mind how to deal with the Clause since I have not found out what it means. I am trying to find out what it means.
The small shopkeeper has had a rough time in the last few years, and I am happy that some proposals of mine gave him security of tenure by legislation that he would not otherwise have had, because I had the privilege of being a member of a committee which considered the question of leasehold reform. Since then, he has been subjected to a great deal of ostentatious attention by the Government of millionaires by millionaires. We have had credit policies which have forced him into bankruptcy. One by one small shopkeepers have been put out of business—
May I be fair to the hon. Gentleman as I know he would want to be fair to me. The hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) referred to these matters incidentally. I allowed the hon. Gentleman to refer to them incidentally. I hope that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) will now link them to the Amendment, as the hon. Member for Rugby did.
This is a somewhat incidental Bill. It was thought up by one member of the Cabinet at a time when discussion had lapsed, because so few members of it were talking to one another that it was difficult to maintain a conversation at length. But I will respond to your invitation, Dr. King, and see precisely what we are discussing. In view of the number of major amendments we are debating, to claim that I cannot say anything that goes outside the ambit of the first Amendment is surely almost a defiance of the Chair, which no one would wish to see, of course.
Dealing with Clause 5, the Explanatory Memorandum says:
Clause 5 confers jurisdiction on the Restrictive Practices Court to order that particular classes of goods should be exempted goods. Before the Court makes such an order it must be shown that, if default of a system of maintained minimum resale prices, the quality or varieties of such goods would be substantially reduced to the detriment of the public…or that the number of retail establishments for the sale of such goods would be substantially reduced to the detriment of the public…or that any necessary services actually provided in connection with or after the sale of such
goods would cease to be provided or would be substantially reduced to the detriment of the public…It must also be shown that any such detriment would outweigh any detriment to the public from the continuance of resale price maintenance.
I hope that I shall not be called arrogant if I say that that complex statement seems to me to be tolerably clear. At least, it was before these Amendments were tabled and before our discussion today. We have to take all these matters into consideration. Only a few minutes ago, however, the hon. Member for Wycombe told us, "No one has to consider anything". Apparently, there is to be no evidence, no trial and no judgment if the Registrar does not bring a case before the Court. It all depends on the Registrar.
I intervened and apprehensively suggested that such was the ultimate interpretation of this proposal. I suggested that what would happen would be that there would be no judgment by the Court and that the Registrar would decide, subject to the direction of the President of the Board of Trade. There was astonishment at this. No hon. Member accepted that proposition until the hon. Member for Wycombe did so, with a very just desire to try to make clear what he thought the Clause meant, whatever it really means and no matter how it may be judicially interpreted.
Nobody pointed out that there will not be any evidence and there will be no question of the retailer putting his case. It will be a question of goods, or classes of goods. On that, the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West put a fair point. He said that we were not here dealing with goods, but classes of goods.
No one can give a binding direction as to what interpretation the Registrar should put on things. He may decide to refer proprietary brands of cereals to the Court or he may classify breakfast foods. We are also to get a whole series of classes of goods in respect of which the President of the Board of Trade will have his say.
For instance, he may say, after consultation with the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, "Early priority should not be given to grapefruit because it is a colonial product. There are great difficulties in the Caribbean at the moment and we do not want to do anything to worsen the existing situation". I concede that I have chosen a somewhat fantastic example, but it is not difficult to see how complex the Clause is without going to that extent.
The President of the Board of Trade, who, to my knowledge, takes a month to reply to a letter from an hon. Member, is now, in addition to his present pressure of a work, to be charged with the duty of deciding the priorities of the Registrar. In turn, the Registrar is to be charged with the imperative duty of preparing a list. What happens if the Registrar is preparing his list at the moment when the right hon. Gentleman is leisurely considering priorities? Will the list, as presented before the right hon. Gentleman has expressed a view on the matter, be res judicata? What are to be the relations of the President of the Board of Trade with the Court?
For my sins, I have had something to say about the re-organisation of the police. One of my hon. Friends made a speech on that subject to which I have already paid tribute. He said that we cannot have magistrates on watch committees because that would involve the judiciary with administration. Now it is said, in this Bill, that the judiciary must not be seized of a case unless the Registrar decides so. The Registrar himself will not present the case to the judiciary without first satisfying himself that the Board of Trade is not considering the subject in deciding whether or not to give a direction about priorities.
In my constituency I interviewed a deputation of pharmacists who convinced me that they had a very strong case for exemption from the Bill as originally drafted. This is a professionally qualified body already subject to rather unfair competition in many ways. The chemists are not allowed to choose their own stock, in a sense. They are under virtual direction to have available all the medical needs which may be required for dispensing on the recommendation of the doctor. They have very heavy costs of stock to bear.
What happens if a question arises of the Registrar considering the designation of so me articles forming part of the stock of pharmacists? Can they make representations through the President of the Board of Trade? Can they write to their Members of Parliament? Is each and every one of us to be involved every time such a question comes up? Will we be subjected to the same sort of political lobbying which has gone on—much of it perfectly fair and proper? I take the view that my constituents are entitled to make any representations they like to me and quite a number take advantage of the privilege with some regularity.
What is the position? Is the hon. Member for Wycombe right? Will the President of the Board of Trade ring up the Registrar and say, "Hold up the Court". Will the Registrar be able to reply, "I am sorry, but the things you mention are already on the list, the Court is convened and the judges have been appointed. It is too late for you to make up your mind. I cannot keep three judges waiting another three or four months while you are hearing evidence or considering the matter." How is the thing to work?
How can the President of the Board of Trade decide on questions involving the pharmacists as against questions concerning machine tools unless there has been a submission to the Board of Trade itself? Should there not be a submission to the Board of Trade? There is no provision in the Bill at the moment for such a submission.
I understand from the possibilities envisaged by the President of the Board of Trade that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Winterbottom) is on a rather poor point. I understand that, once a class of goods is on the list, it must go to the Court. But how is the President of the Board of the Trade to know, before it is too late, that it is on the list? He cannot, it seems, know that it is not on the list until the list is prepared. And he cannot give priority to things which are not on the list.
I always hesitate to repeat to this august House anything that I may have said before, or at least knowingly to do so. I feel very much like the witness who was being formally cross-examined by counsel, who said, "Listen to me and answer me 'yes' or 'no'. Did you or did you not, on the night in question, or at any other time, say to the plaintiff, or to any other person, that the words imputed to you by the plaintiff in his statement of claim, and denied by you in your statement of defence, were matters of little or no significance or otherwise? Answer me yes 'or no'." The witness said, "Yes or no what, sir?"
I am suffering from increasing dubiety. This is a difficult matter. Here is a court which need never sit, unless the Registrar brings something before it, which if it sits may have to adjourn because the President of the Board of Trade has given it no instructions, and we do not know what will happen because he cannot give instructions about priorities because no one is allowed to mention the matter to him. In view of the dissension in the Tory Party, in view of the wars and rumours of wars, in view of the barricades being hastily erected in some room downstairs—maybe, perhaps this emasculation of the Measure is, on the whole, a happy solution I do not know, but it might be better if those who are taking part in these deliberations in Committee would have a little more assurance that no harm is being done.
This brings me to the question of the retailer. The hon. Member for Rugby, in his speech, made it clear that the retailer had been his concern. Where does the retailer come in in all this? I have the honour of representing an urban district with a population of 32,000 people. It includes 500 retail shops. As I have said, it is no use talking about efficiency in terms of the small shopkeeper. The survey which was recently conducted—and the results of which are in the Library; I was responsible for them being there—by Mass Observation in conjunction with Brown's, of Chester, into retailing brought out the fact that when dealing with comparatively small matters, particularly groceries and some of the goods which are the subject of r.p.m., proximity is the determining factor.
It is no use introducing Clauses to say that if the probable consequences lead to a diminution in the number of shops to the detriment of the consumer that is something else. Presumably if there are only two shops in an area and one is likely to close that would be a substantial diminution. Again, presumably if there are 500 shops in the area and half a dozen may close that is not, but who decides and on what evidence and on what ground?
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) made the point when he said that it is not good enough to say to the judges, "Parliament has not been able to make up its mind as to what it wants". It is no good telling them, "There was a row in the Cabinet about this and we have had to go carefully". It is not enough to say, "We have made this thing sufficiently vague and have left it up to you to interpret it. You are in charge and have the duty of defining this with precision". To do this and to say these things is unfair and, for that reason, I ask the Secretary of State to tell us exactly what he means.
As I have said previously, I dislike repealing myself. If I am now repeating words I have previously used I apologise, but there comes a time when some things have to be said and one must sometimes clear one's own mind, even if occasionally it means not clearing the minds of others.
I recall, particularly when I listen to some of the speeches made by hon. Members opposite, the speech of a learned counsel who opened his case to the jury with the words, "Members of the jury. The Scriptures tell us that Pontius Pilate inscribed on the outermost and impregnable walls of mighty Nineveh the mystic words, 'Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin,' which, being interpreted, meant …"—at which point the judge, a man with some theological learning, broke in and said, "Mr. Jones",—that was the name of the learned counsel—"the Scriptures do not tell us that those words were inscribed by Pontius Pilate on a wall anywhere, nor what they mean." The counsel said rather indignantly and, I think, justly so, "My Lord, the Scriptures certainly do tell us that someone inscribed those words upon a wall somewhere; and wherever the wall and whatever the inscription may mean and by whomsover it was inscribed, the principle is the same."
Impressive and picturesque though that may be, I agree that it is not a particularly suitable basis on which to examine such projected legislation.
I join with the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) in agreeing that it is difficult to grasp this series of Amendments and to prepare a speech on them. For that reason I had hoped that someone else would have made the points which I will now try to make.
The first point that has not been cleared up so far is that it is the goods which are registered under the Amendments and not any agreements concerning any sort or class or classes of goods. Thus I am left in some doubt as to who will be the parties eventually to the case when it is called up by the Board of Trade Dr the Registrar. It may be, under Clause 6, that those who may suffer will be the parties, but that is not clear. Certainly as the Amendments and the Bill are drawn the people most deeply concerned, the retailers, will not be parties to the proceedings at all. It should be said from this side of the Committee that there is someone who is not wholly satisfied with these Amendments. I am not satisfied that they have gone far enough in protecting particularly the retailer.
That is the point I am endeavouring to make. As far as I can see, the retailer does not become a party to the proceedings which may be called by the Board of Trade or the Registrar. The Clause and Amendments still seem to leave r.p.m. agreements which are now perfectly legal in suspended invalidity. That is not a particularly happy legal phrase, but it explains what I mean.
The agreement becomes void but the results are suspended if the goods with which that agreement deals are registered with the Registrar. That is how I interpret the Amendments. Then when they are called up, some parties—be they manufacturers, wholesalers or, possibly, retailers—will become the plaintiffs to the proceedings and called on to prove the "gateways" under Clause 5(2). Still the onus of proof is on the individual who at present is doing something which is perfectly legal—that is, until the Bill becomes law. It is on this point that I must tell my right hon. Friend that he has not gone far enough to assist those who are now legally trading but who will suddenly be told that their agreements are illegal and that they must go before a court to prove certain things.
I would have hoped that the Amendments would have gone all the way and allowed this form of registration. It is good enough: they register the goods or agreements—I do not mind which it is—and when the parties concerned are called before the Court it should be for the Board of Trade or the Registrar, or a party other than those who have been doing something quite legal, to show that they are now doing something illegal. The onus of proof should not be on the manufacturer, supplier or retailer: it should be placed on the Government Department which is trying to prove there is something against public policy.
I should be very glad if the Minister, when he replies, would attempt to clear up a question which is causing considerable anxiety in Scotland, and that is, how would this Amendment affect the price of Scotch whisky? Would it reduce the price of Scotch whisky?
Within a few days of the introduction of the Bill, one of the Scottish newspapers published a double column heading:
Scotch whisky to be reduced by 6s. a bottle.
There has been expectant and impatient public opinion in Scotland wondering when this is to be realised. How will it be affected by this Amendment?
It is presumed that Scotch whisky will be registered as one of the commodities to come under consideration. When it is registered the President of the Board of Trade will presumably have to decide whether Scotch whisky is to have priority. At that point there is great excitement in the Scottish Press, and impatience among the Scottish public is increased. We want to know whether the Government will themselves make any attempt to bring about what was regarded as something of a winner in election promises.
I do not think that this has been carefully thought out. The President of the Board of Trade will have to make up his mind whether he will give this a high priority, or first priority; and then immediately there arises the possibility of a conflict with the Scotch whisky distillers, who constitute one of the mainstays of the Unionist Party in Scotland. Surely the Government are caught up in a dilemma—whether they will fulfil the roseate promise of a 6s. reduction in the price of a bottle of whisky, or whether they will antagonise Scotch whisky vested interests. It seems to be a very difficult dilemma.
The President of the Board of Trade may say, "Oh, well, we will put it lower down in the priorities. Let us take Schweppes instead. Let us put mineral waters into a high priority. Let us consider the possibility of how we can redeem our pledges by getting a drastic reduction in the price of soda water previous to the General Election." Then the Government would have to look round and ask, "Whom do we have to conciliate now?"
We look round and we see that the ex-Minister of Defence has been promoted to be one of the leading lights of Schweppes. So there will be all kinds of political problems, and conciliation will be very difficult. Whether Schweppes gets priority over Scotch whisky, or Scotch whisky gets priority over Schweppes, the Government's difficulty will still remain.
These are questions being asked in every "pub" in Scotland. My Scottish colleagues know that these are subjects of persistent questions to Scottish Members, and they are questions which they cannot possibly answer. I invite the President of the Board of Trade to deal with this specific issue, without dealing in generalities at all: how will this affect the cost of a commodity like whisky, and how will the machinery work? My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) is interested in the chemists' shops and the pharmacists. It is not only a question of pharmacists. It is a question of the publicans.
I have no vested interest in this at all because I have no interest in alcohol, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman this gives rise to very bitter problems in every village in Scotland. We are getting letters from the local publicans and retail associations, and we want to know from the Government what precisely the position is to be, when they come to elucidate it, and we want them to say whether they accept this Amendment, and to let us know quite clearly what we are to tell the local publicans, who are asking us to clear up this mystery.
I should like to deal with the substance of some of these Amendments—and away from Scotch whisky. I think that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale), in his verbal gymnastics, showed how this Amendment would work, as did the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) in his dialectic earlier. I fully agreed with thm. I myself think that the result of these Amendments is that we have got the worst of both possible worlds.
I was a keen supporter of my right hon. Friend's Bill in its original form, for reasons which I shall explain later. What has happened now is that to accommodate some of my hon. Friends on this side of the Committee we have had alterations to the Bill. Whatever anybody may say, there are real alterations. There is no doubt about that at all, and among things they do, as was suggested by hon. Gentlemen on the other, bring a political element into the Bill all along the line once it becomes an Act.
This is particularly so of one of the Amendments we are discussing, the Amendment to Clause 6, page 5, line 35, which contains these words in brackets:
(subject to such directions as may be given by the Board of Trade with respect to the order in which such references are to be made)".
I can only repeat the point of view that has been expressed by hon. Gentlemen during the debate. Nevertheless, these words in brackets mean that in the future pressure groups will be able, as said by hon. Gentlemen opposite, to come along
to the President of the Board of Trade and say, "We want our case to come first" or "to come last" as the case may be. These pressure groups may have very few outlets. They may well not represent the retailers—the retailers whose point of view has caused all the trouble among some of my hon. Friends.
I was going to quote those words which the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale quoted from my right hon. Friend's speech on Second Reading. Perhaps I may go back a little further and read what he slid when he originally made the statement that he would deal with resale price maintenance. He said that the Government
have reached the conclusion that resale price maintenance should be presumed to be against the public interest unless in any particular case it is moved to the contrary to the satisfaction of a judicial tribunal. They therefore propose to introduce legislation this Session designed to bring the practice to an end subject to the right to apply for exemption to the judicial tribunal to which I have referred."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th January, 1964; Vol. 687, c. 225.]
That seemed clear enough, and straight forward, and I entirely agreed with it.
Then we had the words quoted by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale. I should like to quote some succeeding words which my right hon. Friend used:
At a time when our effort is being devoted to getting goods to the ultimate purchaser as economically and as cheaply as possible, how can we continue to sanction a system under which a man can be taken to court for lowering his prices?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1964; Vol. 691, c. 261.]
I was particularly interested in that because I should like to declare an interest in that I have been a small manufacturer, I am a provider of a service as a road haulier, and I have been a retailer for a number of years in an instance where there was resale price maintenance in that on one side one had the Government and on the other the National Coal Board and British Railways. I should like to give a quotation of the resale price maintenance prices. I thought that the "Bifbat" was a good one. I am referring to the toy trade, a trade in which there is resale price maintenance. These articles leave the factory costing 8s. 6d. a dozen and arrive at the customer costing 24s. a dozen or 2s. each. That is a remarkable rise between one end and the other.
As my right hon. Friend originally worded the Bill, I thought we were to have a little modernisation in our distributive trade. I believe that these Amendments emasculate that principle completely. Before we had these Amendments, I had always understood that the object of the exercise was to benefit the consumer and lower prices. I have been horrified on the six occasions and during the, probably, 12 hours that I have argued the toss about this with retailers in my constituency to have had the word "consumer" mentioned only once. I should like to see—the Bill in its original form would have allowed this—members of the public enjoying the sort of fringe benefits which are enjoyed one with the other within trade at the moment.
To follow for a moment the hon. Member for Oldham, West into the question of the small shopkeeper, I understood that under the Bill his trade organisation could be one of the parties which could make representations to the tribunal on behalf of its members. I think that answers that point.
I return to my original theme, which is that by political pressure and for no other reason, I suppose, my right hon. Friend has been forced—I suspect he will be forced—to accept Amendments which will result in the Bill, when it becomes an Act, coming back into the political arena. I deprecate this. It is a retrograde and reactionary step in what I thought and hoped was a modernising Bill.
The hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) seems to lament acceptance by the Government of the Amendments on the ground that it will destroy the nineteenth century Liberal philosophy which is inherently that on which the Bill is based. However, he did not explain why this was so. As I have understood the arguments so far, it is clear that the Amendments do not alter the fundamental basis of the Bill at all, that they are merely desired to throw an emollient and somewhat misleading air of concession to the bitter opponents of the Bill who showed on Second Reading that no amount of party loyalty would enable them to support the Government in their purpose.
I wish that the hon. Member had elucidated his point with more clarity. He expressed a general sense of indignation at retreat. He has not told us of any particular in which acceptance of the Amendments retreats from the original purposes of the Bill.
I certainly did. I repeated it. I said it once at the beginning and once at the end, which is the hallmark of all good speech-making. I said that the Amendments would introduce a political content into the Bill when it became an Act in that political pressure could be brought to bear by various trades which were registered with the Registrar through the Board of Trade.
I do not know why the hon. Member suggests that the Registrar will be more liable to political pressure after acceptance of the Amendments than before. I do not imagine that the Amendments will result in any serious change in the intended working of the Bill.
Let us get this point cleared up once and for all. If the hon. Member will look at the Amendment to Clause 6, page 5, line 35, which we are considering in this group, he will see the words:
(subject to such directions as may be given by the Board of Trade with respect to the order in which such references are to be made)".
Is that not clear enough?
All that it means is that the Board of Trade which has already declared itself against restrictive practices of this kind in principle and against the whole concept of resale price maintenance in principle, will have something to say about the order of events in which the court will consider the cases of resale price maintenance. It is perfectly plain to anyone who uses any common sense that as long as the Board of Trade is presided over by somebody who has taken the pains to initiate a Bill which is based upon a fundamental hostility to the principle of resale price maintenance, it is a mere matter of mechanics.
Suppose the Bill had enacted that those who practise resale price maintenance shall lose their heads instead of their system of trading which it is intended they should lose by the Bill, and suppose that under pressure from people who objected to the execution of people who supported a system of resale price maintenance, an Amendment was made in that spirit by the Government which would declare the order in which resale price maintainers would lose their heads. None of us who object to the principle of executing resale price maintainers would have been satisfied if that had been the consequence of the Amendment.
The Bill is intended to accelerate the process of destroying the principles of resale price maintenance that are already being undermined and destroyed at, one might have thought, a rate adequate to satisfy the minds of the most irritable nineteenth century Liberals. It is not as if the country was cluttered up, as it is generally argued, with antiquated relics of resale price maintenance in inefficient and backward stores all over the country. This is not one of the economic problems of this country. What is plain, and everybody ought to face it, is that the destruction of resale price maintenance and the supermarketing, so to say, of our country was already proceeding apace long before the Conservative Government got wind of the matter and felt that they ought to accelerate the process still further.
The question which the Committee has to decide is a political and economic one, whether a shove shall be given still further to accelerate the process, which is already proceeding fast enough in all conscience, and at a speed at which it is exceedingly difficult to digest it socially and economically as it is, or whether things shall be left as they are. There are not more than two basic attitudes to the Bill or to resale price maintenance. One can either feel that one is on the side of order, accommodation, decency, fair trading and the system of just prices, or that any attempt to establish fixed prices and some orderly retailing there must be some accommodation between manufacturers and dealers which enables both to know where they stand and, incidentally, enables the public to know where they stand.
One can have that attitude, which broadly is my own, or the somewhat naïve nineteenth century Liberalism which inspires hon. Members opposite in some cases as well as supporters of the Bill in other cases. The first thing that one has to observe is that these two attitudes are completely hostile to each other, and that it is impossible by any kind of verbalism to produce an honourable accommodation between the two. This is a fight to the finish. I detest the Bill and the attitude of mind behind it.
That being so, it is ignoble and deceitful to tell people who hold my view that by some manoeuvring with words I have persuaded the right hon. Gentleman who has declared himself determined to tear down the whole system of price maintenance inspired by a nineteenth century liberal philosophy which may be right, but which I hold to be wrong, to produce anything like a compromise; that I have persuaded him to produce something like a fair and impartial consideration of the issue when particular price schemes come up for consideration. How can a Court which is forced to make what is, in fact, a political a id economic decision masquerading as a judicial decision pretend that any form of words contained in these Amendments enable it to decide the matter impartially?
The Minister said in his speech—and I am not going to embellish the debate still further with quotations from it; I think that me must own it plainly—that the Government have had enough of price maintenance and that they are out to destroy it. The most that he has said in any contrary sense is that there may be some freak and eccentric exceptions in which a man who wants to defend price maintenance can come before a judicial tribunal and prove that he is an exception to that principle, and that somehow of other he is not as guilty as are all the other people who have been maintaining prices, including the Government in many spheres of their activities, and that he can justify by the test set out in the Bill the continuation of price maintenance. The onus placed on him is that in every case he has to prove political and economic matters which are not matters for a judicial tribunal. They are matters for parliamentary decision on political and economic grounds.
For example, if I am put on the tribunal—this is not an invitation, because I can hardly think of anybody who is more unsuitable to be one of the three new judges whose appointment is to be consequential on this Bill and who will have to decide these matters—I might observe the law with meticulous accuracy, but I hold a totally different view of the public interest from that held by the right hon. Gentleman in relation to these schemes. I do not think that the system of 19th century Liberalism has left such monuments of humanity and decency as to inspire me with the confident belief that we should be urgently bent on restoring them.
Does the hon. Gentleman consider that Mr Nicholas Kaldor, who is regarded as a frequent adviser of the party opposite, holds a nineteenth century outlook? He wrote a powerful letter to The Times pointing out that the opponents to the Bill were not merely small traders, but manufacturers who were getting excessive profits.
I do not see the point of that intervention. I have no interest to declare. My only interest is in preserving something of the quality of the life of our country, and perhaps even using the economic and technical advantages that we are all acquiring to improve human life, the way in which we live our lives and carry on business, the way in which we trade with each other, and in generally improving human relations in our country. I cannot see why quotations from Mr. Kaldor are supposed to be so intimidating and why they are so enthusiastically supported by hon. Gentlemen opposite.
I cannot say that I have never heard of him, but there are particulars of his doctrines on different subjects with which I do not find myself in total agreement. I am not altogether surprised that this is one of them, and it is even conceivable that hon. Gentlemen opposite are not altogether overwhelmingly in support of him. It is an interest- ing debating point which so intelligent an hon. Member is anxious to make at this hour of the day, but it does not carry the debate any further.
Mr. Kaldor is in favour of lots of things which I dislike, such as eccentric action in relation to the £ sterling, and I am not sure that it carries the matter any further when the hon. Gentleman cites Mr. Kaldor's words on this matter. Of course, he is not a nineteenth century Liberal in every aspect of his economic and financial personality, but he is in this case, willingly or unwillingly, allied to the nineteenth century Liberal concept of jungle economics to which he invites us to return.
I make an appeal to hon. Gentlemen opposite to note that this is my sincere conviction. This is not a debating point to protract the debate. I appeal to hon. Gentlemen opposite and to my hon. Friends on this side of the Committee who share my view not to take this lying down. There is a matter of honour at stake. Had this been my Government bringing in a Bill of this type I would have made more or less the same speech. I would have made a similar protest against mistaken steps being taken by the Government in introducing a Measure of this kind. And if my Government had sought—I am sure they would not—to bring in a Bill of this kind, I would have hoped that they would honourably have taken their stand and said that they were out to smash price maintenance and would not have engaged in devious, dishonest, and deceitful manœuvres to camouflage from honourable and passionately feeling people the truth of what they are doing.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to be a man. Is he out to smash retail price maintenance in general or not? I think that the people interested in this question are entitled to hear his voice as unequivocally as it seemed to be expressing itself on the Second Reading of the Bill. I beg hon. Gentlemen opposite who agree with me to register their voices and their votes in no uncertain terms about this.
I am not in favour of anybody charging what he likes in all circumstances, but I did not find myself in a state of abject contrition on hearing about the sale of "Bifbats". It seems extraordinary to quote that example to justify the tearing down of a liberal series of trade arrangements. That is a piffling and derisory example, where somebody is said to have overcharged somebody in the sale of biff bats.
I did not gather the force of that argument, but, as the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity of quoting examples, one would have thought that he would have treated the Committee with a little more consideration for its good sense and, rather than pick on one eccentric example of biff-bats, would have addressed himself to the matters of issue confronting the Committee.
Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that if one is to get this into perspective one should quote not only the price of goods which are subject to resale price maintenance, but the prices of many goods which are not?
That is the point that I was about to make. In any case the argument is meaningless unless one takes extreme cases of overcharging in cases which have nothing to do with price maintenance, and I say to the Committee, as I said when the Monopolies Bill was being considered, that my experience in dealing with complaints in my constituency is that overcharging and deception take place on a far greater scale on non-price maintained goods than on price maintained goods.
If the Committee feels that people are maintaining prices in an unjust way, at an unjust level, there are ways of dealing with that. One does not have to say that the system is wrong, which is what the Minister has said. One does not have to say it is wrong except in the case of a minority example where the guilty practitioner of retail price maintenance comes before a court and tries people who maintain prices can be sent before a tribunal, though not necessarily one like this. If we think that they are overcharging, they should be called to to exculpate himself. One says that the show that they are charging a just price. They should not be called before a tribunal which has been instructed that those people are in effect operating an anti-price maintenance Bill, and prima facie, all these agreements are illegal and are against the public interest.
If it is thought that those people are overcharging, they should be called before a tribunal to justify their prices as fair and reasonable. They should not be called before this kind of inquisition which, in advance, is setting out to destroy the system of business which has been honourably operated for many years by many of the best people in this country, and, indeed, by the Government themselves in many of their activities.
What asrounds me is that a Government who practise price maintenance of one kind or another have the affrontery to come before the Committee and ask for this sort of power. That is the first thing that astonishes me. Can we know from the Minister whether he intends, for example, to destroy the system of price maintenance that works in the air travel industry? Does he intend to instruct B.O.A.C. and B.E.A. to withdraw from I.A.T.A., the national organisation which safeguards the standards of safety and which, to do so, fixes rules, regulations and prices in minute detail and even fixes the margin of profit to be allowed to travel agencies and every conceivable detail in price maintenance?
Are we to understand that we are to have the good fortune to have the elaborate web arrangements for price maintenance arranged internationally and by international agreement or are we to have them broken down? Can we hope that the British air travel corporations, B.O.A.C. and B.E.A., will achieve the same standards of safety which notoriously operate in countries and companies which do not operate this price maintenance arrangement? Can we hear from the Minister what is his view about B.O.A.C. and B.E.A. practice, and what is his view about the steel price practice and the like? May we know a little about the Government's intervention in these matters?
Much of this debate has been concerned with justice and not prejudging the issue. I beg hon. Members who feel substantially as I do, on whichever side of the Committee they are, not to be misled in this. There can be no justice if we commit these political and economic issues to a judicial tribunal which has, in effect, been instructed that a man is guilty unless he proves himself innocent, and who cannot expect any rights in a prejudged issue when he comes before a court on a Bill, the whole basis of which is the assumption that price maintenance is an unfair and unjust scheme against the public interest, except in freak and exceptional cases. No words will give him justice. The only thing that will give him justice is the destruction and abandonment of the Bill. I beg hon. Members who have it in their power to destroy the Bill—not necessarily by destroying their Government—to stand firm on this matter, fight the Government on it and force the Government to drop the Bill which is very much against the interest of ordinary people in this country, the case for which has never been argued.
People who defend price maintenance have inflicted upon us a fantastic out-pouring of argument. I confess that I cannot find my way through it all. It is far too tedious and voluminous. What astonishes me is that nobody seems to think that it is necessary to make a case against price maintenance. We have only to hear the kind of claptrap which is sometimes debated in this House. How can we have people taken to the Court for charging too little and all that sort of thing, which is a most incredibly superficial approach to the problem?
One has only to say something like that and one invites people to take it for granted that the case against price maintenance is obvious to anyone who can read and write. We have never had the case made out. We are told vaguely that we shall get more competition and lower prices as a result, and nothing further than that. On the strength of that, we are asked to take a step which we shall all bitterly regret and which is already proceeding too fast for the social effort and welfare of our society.
I beg hon. Members not to be misled by this elaborate verbiage. I ask them to stand by their principles and on the platform that they have honestly defended in the past, and fight against those of the Bill.
I shall not make any comment on the remarks of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) about Scotch whisky. I must admit that for someone who says that he is not interested in Scotch whisky he put a strange amount of passion into his demand for something to be done about it.
I, too, have doubt about these Amendments. Experience has helped me to have these doubts. During my life, I have been associated with two trades, one being the book trade and the other the manufacture of cement. Both trades were brought before the Restrictive Practices Court by the Registrar with a view to finding out whether price-fixing arrangements were in the public interest. In each case, the Restrictive Practices Court said that the existing type of price arrangement was in the public interest—but at very great expense to both trades. Some tens of thousands of pounds had to be expended.
Are we to understand—I hope that the Minister will be clear on this point—that the same industries or trades may once again be brought before the Restrictive Practices Court and subjected to the same expenditure to prove that their position is not contrary to the public interest? I hope that point will be cleared up, because many industries which have been before the court and which have been cleared from the point of view of the public interest are very doubtful whether this endless expense will once more be placed on the shoulders of themselves and their shareholders. That is the only point that I wish to make and I hope that my right hon. Friend will pay attention to it.
On a point of order, Sir Robert. This is a very difficult problem and I do not expect an answer now, but I should be most grateful if you would give it consideration. I have been in consultation with various advisers and I find that a technical position has arisen that is of rather a serious character. The acceptance of these Amendments would fundamentally change the drafting of the Bill. Whatever hon. Members on either side of the Committee have to say about the purpose of these Amendments, if they are accepted they will affect a whole mass of other Amendments.
A number of Amendments are based on the assumption that we are now dealing with exempted goods, whereas if these Amendments were accepted we should be dealing with goods that are registered, and that may have a very profound effect on your capacity, Sir Robert, and the Chairman's capacity to select Amendments. This may prevent many points being discussed. I have not found it easy to get a final answer from my advisers, and I raise the matter now because this is a very fundamental point.
There is only one way to get over this and that is by drafting very quickly with counsel some 40 or 50 new Amendments. That is clearly a difficult proposition. I want to avoid that if possible. They would be starred Amendments and only in replacement of Amendments on the Notice Paper now, in order to get them in order, on the assumption that the Amendments we are discussing will be accepted by the Government. Based on that assumption, the character of the Bill will be completely changed. Can we discuss this purely as a drafting procedure?
Can you give the Committee some indication of when you will be telling us what the answer is, Sir Robert? It would help hon. Members to make sure that they did not miss your announcement, because it may have a great effect on some of the Amendments which are now on the Order Paper.
And unexpelled—to show the difference between the party opposite and my party.
I have no regrets for anything that I have done or said about the Bill, up to this moment. Last week, when all sort of rumours were flying around, I defined myself as being in a suspended state of suspicious optimism. I am no longer suspended; I have both feet on the ground. I may still be suspicious, until I receive certain answers to questions that I shall put, and, on first reading the Amendments which were tabled on Friday and today, I do not think that my optimism will be fully confirmed.
I listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. H. Lever). I find that he and I are on a considerable amount of common ground, especially on the general approach, from the point of view of laissez faire Liberalism. In certain arguments, both public and private, the point has been made, "In any case, why worry? R.p.m. is on the way out." If it was on the way out, and was going to go so quickly, I could not understand why this Measure was brought in.
In the Second Reading debate I said that this was not a good Bill, and that I did not like it. I showed in the Lobby that I did not like it. The hon. Member for Cheetham, whose speech I enjoyed, adjured all those on this side of the Committee who agreed with me to stand firm. I wish he had stood firm with me in the Lobby. I cannot accept these "holier than thou" attitudes from people who did not go into the Lobby with me when I defied my party on a three-line Whip.
In view of the fact that I did what I did at the end of the Second Reading debate, what is my attitude now? Since that debate, honourable attempts have been made to reach a compromise. Hon. Members opposite have not always been in complete unity with their leaders or their Government, and the same process is taking place with us, now. This is Parliamentary Government. As I was saying, last week attempts were made, and what my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) has described as an honourable accommodation was reached. Whether or not I am satisfied with the result of those attempts, they were an example of Parliamentary democracy at work.
Upstairs, downstairs, or in my Lady's chamber—I do not care. [Laughter.] One must remember our traditional poetry, and this is as good a place and as good an occasion as any to quote poetry.
I was not completely satisfied with the concessions that had apparently been made, so I looked at the Amendments, and especially at Amendment No. 115. If the Amendment under discussion is accepted it will mean that applications for exemption are abolished, and that those who manufacture goods need not apply for exemption. But they must register, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) has pointed out. After that registration, the Registrar selects.
We also have to remember the part played by the Board of Trade. Its duties are concerned with the order of priorities. The most important point of all concerns one little word in the last but one line in Amendment No. 115, namely, the word "all". This is contrary to what I hoped for last week, when reports were flying around about Amendments like this.
I should like to ask my right hon. Friend some specific questions. The nature of his answers will determine my attitude to the Amendment and to our proceedings in Committee. I reserve to myself independent judgment on every Amendment debated here. My first question concerns the onus of proof, especially in relation to Amendment No. 115. I had hoped that the emphasis would shift somewhat, if not completely. As a layman, it appears to me that those who are selected by the Registrar will be presumed guilty before their trial—and it is a trial, because the proceedings are held before a Court, and judges decide the cases.
Secondly, what about those who are not selected? What is their position? Apparently they can continue practising resale price maintenance until they are selected and tried, but are they then, as it were, placed on a sort of conveyor belt? If so, how long will they be on it? Will they be on it until the Board of Trade selects them, or until their turn comes? Is it to be assumed that a resale price maintenance agreement is automatically registered when there has been an appearance before the Court? I do not know how long this will take. Has my right hon. Friend any time limit in mind?
Lastly, what about those who have already been through the hoop? Are we to assume that the Registrar or the Board of Trade will look sympathetically at them, and neither call them nor expect them to be called? I shall make up my mind what to do according to the answers I receive to these questions.
I want to return briefly to what seems to be the crux of the Amendment. When the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) spoke about them he pointed out that the first main change was that instead of having to claim exemption people who wanted to maintain prices would register their goods.
To me, this seems an important Amendment, because registration is a simple and quick process and there is no need to go to the Court. It removes a great deal of the stigma which might possibly have attached itself to the Bill as first drafted. When a case is before the Registrar it is thought to enter a state of suspended invalidity. But it does not. This is a point which I wish made clear. Cases do not actually become valid until the Registrar presents a case to the Court.
If he does not offer any evidence, then, on precedent, the proceedings of the Court are a formality and the case is automatically exempted. If that is so and if my reading of the Amendment is correct, I believe that we have made a very important change in the Bill which will add a great deal of protection—
Will the hon. Member make clear one point, for the benefit of those who are following his argument? Can he give one example of a case in which a person would have been victimised by an adverse decision of the Court, under the legislation as it was before this Amendment, who would escape because of the Amendment? Can he give one example of how someone will benefit from the provisions in the Amendment?
If I am not right, the Office of the Registrar has no function at all, if it does not matter if the Registrar considers there is not a case and no evidence to present. He may do that in a number of cases. He may come to the conclusion that there is no evidence to offer, and so we have introduced a great deal of protection. Otherwise, people would have to claim exemption and present their own case.
I wish to make an intervention because of a remark from my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne). I am one of those who regard the Bill as basically a bad Bill and who voted against it on Second Reading. Nevertheless, it has been approved by the House of Commons and I think it our job to improve, so far as we can, a Bill which was given a Second Reading.
Really! I am surprised, after this long period, that the hon. Member should say that the Bill has been approved by the House. The House is entitled to say that a matter which is worthy of discussion and consideration—I made this point emphatical during the discussion on another Bill—should be considered. I have always taken the view that unless there is something basically wrong about the principle of a Bill it is right to give it a Second Reading and discuss it.
That is exactly what the House has done. The House has never approved the Bill; the country has never approved the Bill; the Cabinet has never approved the Bill; the Conservative Party has never approved the Bill. But there have been some discussions behind the scenes and in camera.
I will not indulge in the luxury of instructing the hon. Gentleman. So far as the House of Commons is concerned, the Bill received a Second Reading. This is now the Committee stage, and it is for us to do what we can to improve the Measure, even though that may be in only a small respect.
One of the important effects of Amendment No. 115 was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington. He said that the Amendment was objectionable to him because it introduced a political element into what he thought should be a judicial field of action. My feeling is entirely contrary. I consider that it is an improvement to introduce a political element in this case, because the decision which has to be taken when determining the priorities is surely a political decision. We do not know how many applications for registration may be made. There may be hundreds; it has been suggested to me that there may be thousands. But there will be a considerable number, and I cannot understand how a judicial officer is to decide the order in which the cases are to be brought before a judicial court. It seems to me essential to make a commercial or a political decision.
There may be considerable questions involving firms which export a large proportion of their products and whose export prices may depend very much on the prices in the home market, and so on. That sort of consideration may be a determining factor in deciding whether a firm, or its goods, shall be dealt with by the Court at any early stage or wait lower down the queue. To me, it seems that such a political decision ought to be taken by a political Minister who, in the last instance, would be answerable to this House.
For that reason I cannot support the argument advanced by my hon. Friend for objecting to the Clause. This change seems to me to be an improvement and will result in removing from the Court the need to take a decision which the Court is not competent to take.
I am probably very stupid about this matter, but I cannot see what difference the acceptance of this Amendment would make to the Bill. Originally, I abstained from voting, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to tell me what difference the Amendment would make. As the Bill was drafted originally, it appeared to me that the supplier of goods had to apply for exemption from the provisions of the Bill. He had to appear before the Court and show that what he was doing was in the public interest as laid down in Clause 5. Until the case was heard he could carry on with the practice which he had followed in the past.
The Amendment says that an agreement must be registered, and that in due course a supplier will be called on to appear before the Court and in precisely the same way to show that what he is doing is in the public interest. It appears to me that in one case he is allowed to apply for exemption and in the other to register the fact that he is doing something which is said to be wrong, and in due course he can be told that what he is doing is not in fact wrong, but right. The difference in this may be the important point which escapes my comprehension; but to me the difference seems that in the one case, the second case, the Registrar has a duty laid on him to refer the agreement to the court. But the only difference is that under the terms of Amendment No. 115 the Board of Trade will give directions as to the order in which these various cases are to be heard.
So far as the supplier and the retailer are concerned—I am interested mostly in the effect on the small retailer—I cannot see that it makes very much difference. I may be entirely wrong, but in either case the retailer has to apply, and show that what he is doing, which is said to be wrong, is in fact right. In one case he has registered the fact that he is doing wrong and in due course he is called on to show that he is doing right. I hope that my right hon. Friend will explain to my simple mind just what is achieved by the Amendment, because I find it hard to understand.
The discussion on these Amendments has given us an opportunity for a fairly wide-ranging debate. I do not think the Committee will expect me to deal with all the points covered by later Amendments of a different nature. It may well be that it would be better to concentrate on individual points when they come up on individual Amendments, but I should like to answer the many points raised in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) introduced these Amendments with great lucidity and explained their purpose. This has been amplified by some other hon. Friends.
The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) challenged me to explain exactly what my version of these Amendments is. He did so in a speech which was most enjoyable. We are delighted to see him back, not only in good health, but in such excellent form. He challenged me to reconcile differences and wished me the worst of luck in doing so. Of course it very rapidly became apparent why he was adopting that technique, because we then had a series of brilliant speeches from some of his hon. Friends, including the hon. Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. H. Lever) and the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), who simply tore to shreds the views put forward on Second Reading by their right hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench, the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown).
In this extraordinary debate we have had those speeches from hon. Members opposite. On Second Reading the right hon. Member for Battersea, South said that he supported the principle of the Bill yet in Committee we are told of the sad places in which it is not properly drafted. The hon. Member for Cheetham said that he would bitterly fight any Bill of this kind and would do so equally if it were introduced by his right hon. Friends. The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale said that he wanted to do this in a different way. The hon. and learned Member for Northampton said that the Opposition did not want this system of a judicial tribunal at all. This is not what the right hon. Member for Battersea, South said on Second Reading. He said that now we have set up the Restrictive Practices Court we should accept it and use this machinery to deal with this restrictive practice, but the right hon. Gentleman has been repudiated by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale.
No, because this is where we have all come to the point of agreement. The hon. and learned Member for Northampton repudiated this machinery and tried by the use of the Order Paper to put other administrative machinery in its place. This is the reason why he had done so much homework over the weekend without studying what his right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South had said on Second Reading.
Those were not the words the right hon. Member used on Second Reading. I am sorry I made the mistake about his constituency, but I knew that he had a long way to travel at the weekend and that prevented him from doing his homework on the Amendment. If he disagreed with the principle of the Bill, he and his hon. Friends ought to have divided against it on Second Reading. Why did they not do so? It was in order to try to preserve a semblance of unity on their side of the House and to prove that in fact they were agreed.
The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale called me back to the matter of principle, quite rightly, and he called himself back too. Why? It was because the whole party opposite has been committed to the principle of this Bill since the White Paper of July, 1951, absolutely, completely and wholeheartedly committed to the principle of the Bill. That was reaffirmed by the Leader of the Opposition in 1955 and again in 1959, and by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North on Second Reading of the Private Member's Bill sponsored by his hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse).
The hon. Member for Manchester, Cheetham asked why people talk claptrap about small men being taken to court for reducing prices. That is exactly what his right hon. Friend said in the Second Reading debate, in rather more artistic language—that he felt it objectionable, quite apart from economics, from the point of view of personal freedom. That is, a man being taken to court for reducing prices. It is the principle which the right hon. Member sincerely and thoroughly holds.
Again, I do not want to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but again he misrepresents me. I made that point about the legal provision that someone should be able to enforce on a third party who had not entered into the contract the terms of that contract. That is not the same as the right hon. Gentleman has suggested.
I stand for honourable agreements, honourably and freely made between people, being kept. I am not in the least anxious to support the provision the Government introduced into the previous bad Bill enabling people to enforce agreements to which they have not been a party.
I have not the slightest desire whatever to restrict the President of the Board of Trade in this most revealing speech—revealing as to character, principle and detail—but I call attention to to the fact, and ask for your Ruling, Sir Robert, that the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) developed all these points in great detail. I rose to reply to them and I was rebuked by the Chair. I was told that all these matters could be mentioned only incidentally and that it was quite improper for me to refer to party principle, party views and past history of Second Reading debates in discussion of these Amendments. I therefore ask if this debate continues and if I catch the eye of the Chair whether I shall be able to repeat the matters I rose to say when I was ruled out of order by your predecessor.
I was dealing with some of the points raised by right hon. and hon. Members in the debate and I did not want to be discourteous in overlooking the important differences which have developed between hon. Members opposite. There was a point of particular concern to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) with which I can deal now. He said that nowhere in the Bill is there any question of retailers being able to have any voice. That is not entirely so. It does not affect these Amendments, but if the hon. Member looks at Clause 8(3) he will see that retailers have the right before the Court to express their point of view and give evidence. That is expressly allowed for in the Bill. I hope that the hon. Member will feel that in talking to his constituents he can explain to them this privilege or right set out in the Bill for the benefit of retailers.
Perhaps I may now turn to the question which was raised by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale when he said that I put two alternatives before the House on Second Reading. He ought
to have made quite clear what those alternatives were. I said:
we come to the present position. It is now apparent that there is no halfway house. The choice is as simple as this. We can permit resale price maintenance to go on in every case, with all that it entails".
That was the first alternative and the second was:
or we can provide for price competition, and facilitate the introduction of new and improved methods of distribution by ending resale price maintenance, except when it can be shown that it helps the consumer and is not contrary to the public interest.
I also said:
the arguments in favour of ending resale price maintenance, with the safeguards set out in the Bill, are conclusive."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1964; Vol. 691, c. 260–1.]
All these safeguards remain in the Bill. This is still my position and that of the Government. We gave two quite plain alternatives. One was just to let it go on. Perhaps I may repeat here, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Cheetham what I said on Second Reading, that resale price maintenance in the grocery trade has broken down but there is no evidence that it is rapidly breaking down in other trades.
The right hon. Gentleman said on Second Reading that the safeguards in the Bill at that time were satisfactory. If that was true, why was it necessary for him to incorporate fresh safeguards, which is what he has done in making concessions to his hon. Friends? When the right hon. Gentleman comes to discuss his own Bill—he has not done it yet—we should like to be told what are the fresh safeguards which he has given to his hon. Friends. Will he explain to the Committee in precise terms what he thinks the safeguards are, what difference they make to the original Bill, and whether they conform with the statement which his hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) made to The Times as to the meaning of the concessions?
I am going to deal with those matters. The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale accused me of changing principles. He said that I had put two courses before the House and had now abandoned both. This is plainly not so, and I am just explaining why. I went on to say that the Government adhered
to the principles but that this did not mean
that our minds are closed to practical and constructive suggestion for improving the Bill which may be made in our discussions in Committee."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1964; Vol. 691, c. 275]
I am coming now to the Amendments which we are considering and their effect on the Bill. This is part of our discussion in Committee.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will find it enjoyable to have these discussions going on in full Committee.
First, I will deal briefly with what happens under the Bill in its present form. According to the Bill, Clause 6, a supplier or suppliers may give notice to the Registrar
in respect of goods of any description so supplied by that supplier or those suppliers, requiring him to make a reference to the Court under that section in respect of those goods.
This has commonly been interpreted as meaning that one makes application for exemption. If one does that, resale price maintenance continues until the court reaches a decision on it one way or the other. If one does not apply, resale price maintenance is prohibited. This is the position under the Bill as it stands at present. I hope that we may have agreement on both sides about that.
Some of my hon. Friends felt—they expressed this view on Second Reading—that this was not a satisfactory procedure within the Bill itself because it branded suppliers with a stigma—I think that that is an expression which has been used—before the case was before the Court because they were making the application. I tried to express on Second Reading my view that this was not, in fact, so, and I emphasised that
these are not criminal proceedings. There is no question of guilt or innocence. They are commercial matters under civil proceedings".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1964; Vol. 691, c. 272.]
The Government have always wanted to make plain that this was a commercial matter dealt with in circumstances very similar to those in which many other commercial matters are dealt with under our law. It was not a question of guilt or innocence but a question of whether
a practice should be allowed to continue or not. This was the whole approach of the Bill. However, I fully recognise that some of my hon. Friends—they expressed it very frankly on Second Reading—felt that this would not be so with the procedure as set down at present in the Bill for making the application. Therefore, in these discussions—I said that I would willingly consider practical suggestions—we have been endeavouring to find a way in which that feeling could be avoided. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has, with his hon. Friends, put forward a series of Amendments to meet it.
I come now to the question of what the Amendments jointly do. They provide that those who wish to continue with resale price maintenance will register it. There will, therefore, be a process of registration. The Amendment sets out arrangements for the register to be kept by the Registrar.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) asked whether it would be the supplier or the retailer who would register. It will be the suppliers who register in this form because, as the Committee knows, it is the suppliers who enforce resale price maintenance. For this reason, suppliers will register their resale price maintenance if they wish to continue it.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the retailers come into it only at a later stage of the proceedings under Clause 8(3) and they have no right whatever to initiate registration? They might, therefore, lose the protection of resale price maintenance if the manufacturer or supplier chose not to register.
This goes into a much deeper matter which we discussed on Second Reading, the fact that at this moment, if a manufacturer wishes to give up resale price maintenance, there is no means of stopping him doing so. This is the existing situation. In all trades there is no difference of any kind between what we are doing under the Bill and what exists at present.
Is it to be done by a representative group of manufacturers or associations, or will everyone with an interest in a particular trade following resale price maintenance from the suppliers' point of view have to register with the Registrar?
It may be done either by manufacturers or through their trade associations. It can be in either way. I think that the other point which my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby put to me was this. He thought that this would lead to a state of—I think he said—suspended animation. My hon. Friend the Member for Burton-on-Trent (Mr. Jennings), on the other hand, envisaged a state of suspended optimism. [HON. MEMBERS: "suspicion."] I was hoping that the suspicion would disappear and that the optimism would remain. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby thought that it would lead to a period of suspended animation. When goods are registered, then resale price maintenance continues, clearly, until the Court has decided one way or the other.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree that this must be the right of the individual manufacturer. Within a group of manufacturers, there might be one whose prices were so high in the same range that it was against the public interest, but it might well be that an individual manufacturer in the group maintained prices and conducted activities which were well within the public interest, and it would be quite wrong to group them altogether and prove him wrong although he was acting rightly in continuing resale price maintenance.
The question of grouping is in the power of the Registrar. My hon. Friend is referring to prices with reference to the three gateways under Clause 5. This is an entirely separate matter. The exemption is affected by the number and variety of establishments, the quality of the goods, and so on. My hon. Friend will not find that price, in the way he describes it, is a factor in grouping. It is the responsibility of the Registrar to carry out the grouping, and this is laid down in the Amendments. He can do it on registration either by an individual manufacturer or an association. I hope that I have dealt with that point.
The right hon. Gentleman said just now that, under the existing system, only the manufacturer could enforce price maintenance. I am sure that he will agree—perhaps he will consult the Attorney-General—that this is not necessarily or universally so. There are a great many agency agreements under which the agents can require the manufacturer to maintain the system.
If I said that it was the manufacturer, I am sorry; it is the supplier who enforces the resale price maintenance and, therefore, the supplier or his association who registers the goods—
Since collective enforcement has already been ventilated, how would the right hon. Gentleman improve the position if he is to give the right to groups of manufacturers to have collective registration when there is at present no collective enforcement?
I am afraid that the hon. Member has misunderstood me. I did not say that this was giving the manufacturers collectively the right to enforce an agreement, but a right to the suppliers' association to register these goods with the Registrar if it so wished. Therefore, it is not necessarily the case that every individual supplier has to register the goods. They can be registered by the association, and I should have thought that that would be for the general convenience of all concerned. The resale price maintenance continues once registration has taken place. I hope that that explanation clarifies the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby. If the goods are not registered, resale price maintenance is prohibited, so that aspect of Clause 1 is maintained.
Then the Registrar will compile the list of goods and will publish notices, as is arranged under, I think, Clause 6, and as is also provided for later on—
As my hon. Friend knows, there are a number of Amendments later on this particular subject. I do not think that I should prejudge it until we get to the detailed Amendments, but I recognise the importance of this point. It would be open to suppliers to point out to the Registrar particular aspects of the grouping which affected them, and they would probably be at liberty to do that but I fully recognise the importance of the point mentioned by my hon. Friend, particularly for suppliers.
The Registrar will have the task of referring to the Court the goods for the time being on the register. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) and other hon. Members referred to this. The Registrar would refer all the goods on the register, otherwise he would be making some form of prima facie judgment about particular goods, and not referring them to the Court. The provision, therefore, covers the whole of the goods on the register, and the Registrar would refer them to the Court.
I have been asked about what the Registrar's attitude would be if he felt that in a particular case there was not sufficient evidence. Here, I must emphasise that the Registrar is an entirely independent person. He is not in any way dependent on the Board of Trade, or the Ministers or the Government. He is an independent person—and, indeed, the Court is independent—and therefore what he does and what the Court does is entirely a matter for them. I understand, however, that it would be possible for the Registrar, in front of the Court, to agree with facts that were being put before the Court in one of the cases he had presented to the Court. It would be possible for him to take that view if he thought it right and proper, and it would also be possible for the Court, if it thought that the Registrar's behaviour was right and proper, to accept the agreement he put forward. This, however, is entirely a matter for the Registrar and for the Court, and they must remain independent in this way.
My right hon. Friend says that the Court is independent, and thereby implies that it is master of its own destinies but, surely, that is not correct. The Court is covered by Clause 5, which says that the Court cannot grant exemption unless one of the three gateways plus the public in- terest is established, which is not quite the same thing as to say that the Court is at liberty to grant exemption in that way.
I am just coming to that, because I was about to deal with Amendment 115, which gives the Board of Trade permissive powers to direct the Registrar as to the order of the goods that should be called up. A number of hon. Members opposite have expressed their disagreement with this and, indeed, their horror at the proceedings that have been described. One hon. Member said that it was open to widespread corruption, and another said it was a process open to jobbery.
In taking these powers, we are taking exactly the powers that exist in the 1956 Restrictive Trade Practices Act. When that Measure was in Committee the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond)—or hon. Gentleman as he then was—moved an Amendment to widen the powers of the Board of Trade. The right hon. Member for Battersea, North accepted that these powers were necessary to the Board of Trade. He entirely supported the Government's wish to have power over the order in which the matters were handled. The Opposition did not object to that at all, but thought it not enough. That is the view that the party opposite took in Committee when discussing the 1956 legislation, when we took exactly those powers, so, again, hon. Members opposite who have been so scathing and critical of the powers that the Amendment would provide are entirely at variance with the views of their own party at that time.
Moreover, I have been studying what happened in the Restrictive Practices Court after the passage of the 1956 Measure. The Board of Trade exercised its powers in order to direct the Registrar on the order in which the restrictive practices should be taken. We, therefore, have experience of this procedure, and the splendid but imaginative difficulties put up by the hon. Member for Oldham, West have, in practice, all been dealt with by the existing Restrictive Practices Court. The hon. Gentleman said it would be impossible to continue the order until it had been registered and that, once registered, it would not be possible, because the Registrar would do it. That is not the case and has not been the case under the 1956 Act. As I have described, all individual goods can be registered, and the President of the Board of Trade can, if he wishes, give a directive to the Registrar about the order of the goods.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) will probably recall that when this topic was discussed in 1956 he said that the purpose was first to take a wide variety of agreements before the Court. That, indeed, is what happened. But the position is not quite comparable when we are dealing with resale price maintenance. Resale price maintenance is one type of restrictive practice, and a wide variety of agreements is not involved. On the other hand, a wide variety of goods is involved, with a different set of circumstances attaching to them, so it would be comparable with the President of the Board of Trade giving a directive to the Registrar about the order in which the goods should be taken. Moreover, it is administratively impossible to use this method.
I have further looked up what has happened since this time, because my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) was worried about the use of political pressure. There are many powers that the President of the Board of Trade has in regard to various agreements and these are open to question in the House—and this is what my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) said about keeping control with the House of Commons—but he has to make a decision on the merits of the case, and deal with it, and support it.
In the House since the passage of the 1956 Act there have been, as far as I can discover, eight Questions in all on the exercise of this power by the Board of Trade. Six asked for information about the progress in implementing the Act and were very largely from the right hon. Member for Battersea, North. Two were from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) who put down Questions about an agreement relating to Crown Cork to ensure that it was brought before the Court at the earliest possible moment. Even knowing the influence of my hon. Friend, it is not undue political pressure that in the working of the Act there should have been two Questions about a particular item. The Committee is entitled to take the view that the House of Commons is entitled to have these powers and that we would use them responsibly and that the House would not exercise jobbery or political corruption or pressure or any of those things in this respect.
I have been waiting for some time for the right hon. Gentleman to bring a sentence to a full stop. He has spent half an hour in suggesting that on occasion I have not been in complete agreement with my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) on the details of certain economic measures, which is indeed true. How far the right hon. Gentleman thinks that valid, I do not know. He has gone on to argue that the procedure in relation to restrictive practices should be applied to the whole question of whether a bar of chocolate should be sold at 11d. instead of Is. That seems to me to be stretching his argument rather far, and the right hon. Gentleman has had to call in aid the theory that Clause 8 will be passed to justify his argument, although that particular form of reasoning has been ruled out of order in relation to almost every speaker in the debate.
I think that what I was saying about the hon. Member's economic arguments was valid but I am not certain that they are important. That is where perhaps I have made a mistake. The hon. Member also stretched his own sentence a very long way in saying that I have been arguing that we should extend the 1956 Act to resale price maintenance. I have been taking the precise point, which is the powers of the Board of Trade to direct the Registrar on goods to be taken, and I have been saying that we have had experience under the existing Act and it has worked very well.
In view of the satisfactory experience which the right hon. Gentleman has explained the Board of Trade has had under the Restrictive Practices Act, will he say why the Government when they originally drafted the Bill did not provide for this?
I can tell the hon. Member quite clearly. It is because we thought after the experience we had had in the Restrictive Practices Court and in the establishment of the Registrar, and so on, that those concerned witth manufacturing and industry, and the House of Commons, might agree that the powers of the Board of Trade should not be renewed in this particular case. But as it has been made clear to me that there is a desire for these powers and that they can be employed usefully in affecting the order of goods called up, I am quite agreeable to taking them, because this meets my hon. Friends in the practical and constructive way for which they have asked. I think that this is a sound reason.
Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many references there were under the 1956 Act and how they will compare with references under this Bill when it becomes an Act? Surely, if he is going to deal with resale price maintenance by this method the right hon. Gentleman will have to have huge references to the Court under the Bill, which did not apply so much under the 1956 Act. Surely that makes a great difference to the power to be exercised.
With great respect, I do not think that it does. I cannot without notice give the total number referred by the Board of Trade in the early years. Afterwards it continued with the Registrar himself without directing him on any order. Nor can I tell the hon. Member how many there will be in future, because that is hypothetical depending upon the number who will register. It may work in the same way, if varieties of types of goods are taken, dealing with different items under the different gateways referring to variety or service and so on. The Court will make decisions. Case law will build up and manufacturers or suppliers themselves will make their own decisions about their future conduct.
Is the right hon. Gentleman saying to the Committee that he has formed no estimate whatever of the number of references that there will be or of the length of the list? I suggest to him that he must have formed some estimate and that he ought to tell the Committee. The right hon. Gentleman, I am sure, would be the first to appreciate that power to direct priorities in a short list is very different in principle from a power to direct priorities in a virtually unending, continuing list.
Under the 1956 Act there were several thousand registrations, even though several thousand agreements were dropped immediately the Bill came into force. If I offered such a list the hon. Member would be the first to accuse me of forestalling the House of Commons on the Bill and forestalling manufacturers in their decisions on the Bill. I, therefore, do not propose to offer any list of that kind.
The hon. Lady embarrasses me very much in this way, but perhaps in a moment I may be able to give way.
The last point about the procedure under the Amendments is that the Amendments do not affect the position in the proceedings before the Court. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend who quite clearly explained this.
This raises the question of justiciable issues about which the hon. and learned Member for Northampton spoke at length. Again it is debatable whether one uses administrative machinery for controlling restrictive practices or whether one uses judicial, but it is not in doubt that it is possible to have a justiciable issue. There is one in the 1956 Act and I believe that the Bill contains one in Clause 5. Therefore, I agree that it is a matter of argument as to the form one should use but, having decided on a judicial form, it is possible to have a justiciable issue.
As far as I understand, a justiciable issue is a decision as to facts which have happened. Here every decision is an economic prognosis, a guess into the future. That, in my submission, is not a justiciable issue. It is a guess.
On this point we shall have to agree to differ. I am saying that the judges are making judgments on issues before the Court under the 1956 Act and I believe that they can do the same in this case.
The hon. Member for Cheetham, in his comment on prices, overlooked the fact that maximum prices can still be maintained under the Bill and any supplier who wishes to do so can enforce that. As for services of the kind which the hon. Member raised, apart from those of the statutory bodies, services come under Clause 5 in the gateway there. This deals with the points which the hon. Member in particular raised.
I hope that I have dealt with all the detailed points raised by my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite. I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington on the question of the use of the powers of the Board of Trade and that I have shown how this change in the procedure under the Bill meets the justifiable points put to us by my hon. Friends who have moved and supported the Amendment. I believe that these are not inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the Bill and that, as they have met the points which have been put to us, they should commend themselves to the Committee.
I, therefore, hope that the Committee will agree that the changes which we are making are facilitating the procedure and removing any possible misunderstanding about it. I hope that the Committee will come to a conclusion and will accept the Amendment.
I was surprised that the Government were represented on this group of Amendments by the Secretary of State and not by the Leader of the House, because it was the Leader of the House who was responsible for the group of Amendments, and I thought that he might have been called upon to defend them. The Secretary of State was justified, on Second Reading, in saying that in his view there was no half-way house in the matter. If hon. Members opposite think that he has made a serious change in the Bill, then they are being very easily deluded. It is astonishing how easy it has been to persuade the gallant rebels opposite that the Government have given way on a point of substance in the Bill. I am surprised at the way in which the gallant mutineers ran up the skull-and-cross-bones so rapidly and then ran it down again as soon as the police appeared.
We are in difficulties in following exactly what the Government are doing. That is the fault of no one other than the Government—and it is their fault for having insisted on debating the matter when most hon. Members have not had time fully to appreciate what the Amendments mean. We shall see who has done his homework best. I will attempt to do what hardly anyone has done so far today—try to explain what I think is the difference between the Bill as amended and the Bill as it stood on Second Reading. If I am right in my interpretation—and it appears to me to correspond with what the right hon. Gentleman says in his not-too-lucid exposition; the fact that it was not too lucid may not be his fault—then there has been no serious change in the Bill. If I am wrong, then no doubt the right hon. Gentleman will tell me where I am wrong.
As understand, in the Bill as introduced the procedure was as follows: first, the supplier had to notify within four months his wish that certain types of goods should be exempt. That was stage I. If he did not make such a notification, then the Act came into operation and he was no longer able to use the law to enforce his prices after the period laid down. That was stage 2. On the other hand, in stage 3, if he put in the notification the obligation was on the Registrar to bring the case before the Court; and unless and until the Registrar did so, the supplier was at liberty to continue his resale price maintenance practices and to enforce them by law.
The onus of proof when the proceedings came up under the Bill as it originally stood was on the supplier, who had to prove in accordance with the Bill that the case was in the public interest. The court then reached its decision. Unless it accepted the case put forward by the supplier, he could no longer claim the support of the law for his resale price maintenance.
Let us look at the Bill as it would stand if it were amended. I hope that I understand the Amendments correctly, but we have not had a great deal of time to look at them. I ask hon. Members who are concerned about this to take note of the new situation. First, the supplier has to register the goods to which his resale price maintenance practice applies. Just as before, he has to register them with the Registrar. That is stage 1. There is a new stage—stage 2. The Board of Trade now has the power, if it wishes, to indicate to the Registrar in which order of priority the Registrar should bring these groups before the Court.
I think that what hon. Members opposite have not noticed—and the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me here—is that this is a permissive power in the Board of Trade. The Board of Trade is lot obliged in every case, if it does not wish, to give an indication of an order of priority. It is merely given the Dower to do so if it wishes. I therefore presume, as we interpret the Bill, that of the Board of Trade does not give such an indication, the Registrar, who has a duty to make these references anyway, is entitled to come forward on his own decision of priorities without waiting for the Board of Trade. That seems obviously to be implied in the fact that the powers of the Board of Trade are permissive.
I would prefer to take this by stages. The Board of Trade has power to do these things if it wishes. So far, the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me. In the next stage—
Before we leave that stage, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman does not see the great difference in the fact that the power is given to the Board of Trade to bring forward those agreements which the Minister considered, and perhaps the Monopolies Commission also considered, to be absolutely contrary to the public interest. As the Bill stood before, the Board of Trade could do nothing about that. Under the Amendment the Board of Trade has this power, which, admittedly, is permissive. It will have the opportunity to deal first with those restrictive practices which are really against the public interest. This is a very important aspect which the right hon. Gentleman entirely ignores.
I was coming to that point and I would rather have done so in my own order.
As I have said, under the Amendments the Board of Trade, if it wishes, may indicate an order of priority. In the final stage the Registrar brings the case before the Court, and in the proceedings before the Court the onus of proof, exactly as before, is on the supplier to show that what he is doing is in the public interest. So far, I have merely attempted to outline the two procedures, the old one and the new one, and I gather that the right hon. Gentleman does not, as a matter of interpretation of the Bill, seriously differ from what I have said.
If that is the case, it seems to us that remarkably little difference has been made in the Bill. What differences are there? There are really only two which could even be alleged. The first is that the supplier, instead of registering what was, in effect, a claim for exemption, now registers the fact that he is conducting resale price maintenance practices—that he is fixing his retail price. This is a distinction without a difference. He merely puts in a notification. If he does not put in the notification, he cannot, after a certain date, go on with his practices. But if he does put in a notification he can continue them unless and until the Court decides against him. In all substance, the case is the same.
I ask hon. Members opposite to notice that even the language is almost the same. As the Bill was drawn at the time of the Second Reading, the supplier was required to put in a notice requiring reference. He now has to put in a notice claiming registration. That is the sum of the difference. If hon. Members opposite think that this change removes a terrible stigma of guilt or immorality which formerly attached to the supplier, all I can say is that they are very easily persuaded. It seems to us to be a form of difference without any serious substance.
There is the point to which the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Peter Emery) has rightly drawn attention. We are told by these Amendments that the Board of Trade may, as it could in the corresponding circumstances under the 1956 Act, indicate a suggested series of priorities to the Registrar under which he should bring these cases before it. I do not object to that, in principle, now any more than I did in 1956. A case can be made out for saying that the Board of Trade is better able to judge the order of priorities than the Registrar. But I ask hon. Members opposite to realise—I am not sure that they have done so—that without the Amendment the Registrar would have had to decide the order of priorities in any case.
The Registrar is an independent but intelligent and well-informed official acting in the public interest. So presumably, we would hope, are the members of the department of the Board of Trade dealing with this matter. Although I do not oppose this proposal, I see very little reason to believe that it will make any substantial difference to the legal and industrial effect of the Bill if the order of priorities is drawn up by the Board and not by the Registrar.
In addition, the Board of Trade does not have to do it at all. I do not know whether hon. Members opposite realised this. The Board of Trade is merely given power to do it if it so wishes.
First, I think that the right hon. Gentleman would admit—so would anybody else—that, on his last point but one, the Board of Trade has far more economic knowledge on which to judge the priorities in the interests of the nation. Secondly, I am sure that he appreciates that the Board of Trade has never exercised its powers, even in one case.
That may be so. That is one reason why we are not opposed to this proposal.
It may be that the Board of Trade has a great deal of economic knowledge. It is no more omniscient than the Registrar. Therefore, it does not make a very great deal of difference in practice. If this were such a revolutionary change, it is very odd that, as the Secretary of State told us, only, apparently, eight Questions have been asked about this matter since the 1956 Act. That in itself shows that this mere power of indicating priorities does not make a very great deal of difference. It therefore seems to us that, with remarkable ease, the Secretary of State has persuaded all the courageous rebels that something has been given to them when almost nothing has been given to them.
The astonishing thing is that a large number of hon. Members opposite, and particularly hon. Members below the Gangway, have apparently pledged themselves to their constituents. They have pledged themselves to various representatives of trade and industry that they would fight, not to the last drop of blood, but, perhaps, to the last drop of ink, in defence of their interests and obtain major concessions in the Bill. The truth is that they have obtained concessions which mean a little, but so little that they make no difference to the substance. They make no difference to the onus of proof, which was supposed to be the great principle at stake. I think that hon. Members opposite will have some difficulty in explaining to those to whom they have given these pledges why they ran away at the very first sight of the enemy.
If my interpretation of the Bill, with these Amendments—with which the right hon. Gentleman apparently agrees—is wrong, I hope that someone will get up and explain in what respect it is wrong. If it is not wrong, then it is clear that a number of hon. Members opposite, including the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall), do not fully understand the purport of the Amendments and that they are in great danger of misleading their supporters in the country.
These Amendments did not come, in the first place, from the Government, but were initiated by a few of us who got together to sign them. They were formulated by those who signed them and were thoroughly understood by them. There is no doubt in our minds as to what these Amendments mean.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) is being customarily charitable in alleging that those who support the Amendments do not understand them. The only reason I rise again is that we have now an extraordinary situation. The Bill is regarded as a matter of fundamental importance by hon. Members opposite and some of them divided against the Second Reading. Then an Amendment was put down which, they feel, makes a significant difference. I asked the President of the Board of Trade to cite one example where it would make any difference to the Bill. I asked other hon. Members as well. No one has been able to tell me.
The truth is that the special circumstances of the matter remain the same, with or without the Amendments, for the supplier anxious to maintain his system of prices. As the Bill stood, and will continue to stand even with these Amendments, if a man wants to maintain his present system of price maintenance he will, for all practical purposes, be in an identical position.
There is not a single case where a man who would have been prevented from maintaining prices before will not now be prevented from maintaining prices, despite the Amendments. How, in these circumstances, the right hon. Gentleman cannot give a single example of the Amendments making any beneficial difference to a man seeking to maintain his present system of prices, and how hon. Members opposite can accept this as satisfactory, I know now.
There is a principle involved. The House of Commons has, or is supposed to have, an educative function in relation to the people. What are we to make of an argument like this, where we get a kind of parliamentary charade and not sincere anlysis and discussion of the intentions of the Bill? The right hon. Gentleman said, in effect, on Second Reading, "I am against price maintenance except in special circumstances in which people who are anxious to maintain prices must go through severe tests to satisfy the Court." He added that only in very special circumstances would a man be permitted to maintain his prices as before.
A number of his hon. Friends—and I myself—feel that this proposal would have a very serious and evil effect upon our trading life. A number of his hon. Friends expressed their dissent in the Lobby. The Opposition did not divide on Second Reading. I did not vote against the Bill. This is a question of Parliamentary tactics. It is understood in the House that in certain circumstances hon. Members give a Bill a Second Reading and reserve any question of dividing on the matter until later. I am not trying to escape the point, which would appear to be highly irrelevant to the debate we are supposed to be having. It seemed to me that the Minister was trying to ride off on an excuse instead of saying, "The Amendments meet the views of those who were opposed to the attitude I adopted on Second Reading". He did not say that and despite the questions put to him he has not made it clear how there is any difference between the Bill as it stood and the Bill as it stands.
I have never claimed to possess a great deal of Labour orthodoxy and I agree that the views of some of my hon. Friends and others differ on this point. I dare say that if we came to compare detailed notes, the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and I would show a different shade of opinion as to whether or not r.p.m. is desirable; but what has this to do with the Amendments? It is only an endeavour on the part of the Minister to show that he has supposedly made a substantial concession to some of his hon. Friends.
That is an untenable argument. He may not have said it, but he allows it to be said by his bemused supporters—and then he acquiesces in the statement and tries to convey the fact that he has made a substantial difference to the operation of the Bill. It is for this reason that I challenged him to tell us whether the Amendments modified the impact of the Bill. I asked him to explain this so that his supporters would know where they stood.
I have no doubt that some of the right hon. Gentleman's supporters accept the Amendments, and I sympathise with their political difficulties. They must have something with which to go back to their constituencies and say that improvements have been made. Hon. Members opposite cannot tell their constituents that the Government have been placed in a ridiculous situation from which they cannot extricate themselves and that they, hon. Members opposite, have the choice of bringing the Government down or supporting them. Naturally, if they bring the Government down the alternative is the evil of another Labour Government, and I suppose that they feel constrained to pretend, at least in the Committee, that the Amendments have some significance and that they will have an impact on the working of the Bill.
I can only hope that their constituents will not be deceived, either wilfully or otherwise, because everyone outside Parliament should be told that a man who wishes to maintain his prices will be able to do so just the same under the Bill as it stands, with the Amendments, as he would have been able to do under the original Bill. We will know from the results of the next decision just who on the benches opposite is willing to pretend to being deceived by the Government. Those who are not must realise that the Government have not been able to answer the challenge I issued and which I repeat; give the Committee an example of a man who, before the Amendments were tabled, and if they are passed, will be better off if they are passed if he is anxious to maintain his price system?
The Government could say that he must follow the registration system, and so on, but the truth is that anyone who before the Amendments were suggested wanted to maintain his price system could do so if he satisfied points A, B and C of the Court. That is exactly the position in which he will be if the Amendments are passed. He is not a bit better off than he would have been had the Amendments not been suggested. The only possible argument is that the sequence of injury to those who wish to keep their existing prices has changed and has become a distinction at the discretion of the Board of Trade. That is to say, instead of A, B, C, D and E of price maintainers having their systems broken down in that order the Board of Trade is in the happy position of being able to take them in order E, D, C, B, A or in any other permutation it wants.
The fact of the matter is that the queue of people to go with price systems before the Court will exist, and that all that will change is, not the number of systems which will be broken down, or the principles upon which they will be broken down, or the onus of proof why a system should be broken down; all that will change—
—all that may change—is, if the Government choose to, they can alter the natural sequence in which these agreements go before the Court. I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention. The probability is that even the sequence will not change.
Much as I enjoyed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot), it was again the kind of point on which the Minister seeks to ride off a fundamental issue, but, of course, I do not think that there will be jobbery and corruption. I do not believe that brickbat manufacturers are going to queue up at the Board of Trade and drop a fiver in the hands of the right hon. Gentleman or even of the Minister of State, his assistant, who is waiting to make perhaps some further comments on the matter.
The Minister is shaking his head. I feared as much. There was no doubt that we were to have no relevant discussion by the Government of this Amendment. All we have are the deluded comments of such of the Government's supporters as are deluded or the acid comments of hon. Members on this side. It is not that we are really worried about corruption. I can see my hon. Friend's point as a matter of academic interest, but I am happy to say that even under the Conservative Government the matter of corruption can be regarded as a matter of academic interest. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is getting restive, but I do not want to go into the theoretical principles he advances, but I must say that it is not a practical matter.
The practical matter is twofold. Are we going to make an economic and political decision to tear down a system of price maintenance? Are we going to express our view by a means which will be creditable to Parliament by a vote for or against the Amendment? Or are we going to pretend that some sort of satisfactory compromise has been reached between the Government and their supporters? It is clear that Parliament requires a clear vote upon the matter, and hon. Members opposite who have allowed their supporters to think that they are fighting for concessions on their behalf ought to make it quite plain that they do not believe any honourable concession has been made to their point of view at all, and I hope that they will show it in the Division Lobby.
I want to make one or two remarks on the speech of the hon. Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. H. Lever) and the speech by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay). The hon. Member for Cheetham, as usual, filed his speech with roughly equal proportions of humour and irrelevancy. If the honour of Parliament has to rest upon his judgment—
—all I can say is that I am quite capable of making up my own mind on the matter, and I believe that all other hon. Members are able to do the same and we shall not be worried about that.
Both the hon. Member and the right hon. Member for Battersea, North, instead of dealing with the merits or demerits of this set of Amendments, had as the them of their speeches a sort of disappointment or despair because there appeared to be some kind of reasonable compromise which had been reached between some of us—[Laughter.] I do not expect hon. Members opposite to understand a reasonable compromise. Their attitude, as we well know, is composed of an extreme right and an extreme left, with a small element in the centre to keep the two ends together.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) said, we on our side have not got all we wanted from the Bill, and my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has not got all he sought to achieve by the Bill. Though I do not expect hon. Members opposite to understand it, that is what we think is probably about the best position.
No. I shall not give way.
All through his remarks, the hon. Member for Cheetham gave no attention at all to this series of Amendments. I can only assume that he thought that it was of no importance that there appears in the Bill for the first time a power to enable us, whether the Board of Trade may or does or shall exercise its power at all, to inquire of every and each trade, and every pat t of each trade, in the future about what is going on. I can tell my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Cheetham that I do not imagine that the number of cases raised in the next few years, relating to the working of resale price maintenance, will be limited to eight questions. If the hon. Member thinks that it is a small concession to confer on hon. Members, he must have a poor opinion of Parliament and our duties. I think this is of the greatest importance.
There is one thing which the right hon. Member for Battersea, North might like to tell me in connection with the Bill. We all know that the Labour Party as a whole is in favour of the abolition of resale price maintenance. Some of us remember the Private Member's Bill of 17th January, which, in about three Clauses, abandoned the whole system. It was introduced by the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse), and it appeared that his party was backing him up on it. I ask the right hon. Member for Battersea, North where the Opposition stand on this at the moment. Do they intend to vote on these Amendments or just take no action? Will they do what they did on 10th March? Where do they stand on resale price maintenance today, on 23rd March?
I can tell the hon. Member that we shall not vote against these Amendments, because we have no objection to them—on the ground that they do very little. I would ask the hon. Member whether he realises that the only power for hon. Members to ask Questions, which the Amendments confer, is purely on the issue of any order of priority in which the Board of Trade advises these cases should be taken, and no more?
If the right hon. Gentleman has not more ingenuity in extracting information by means of Question and supplementary questions, I am surprised to find him sitting where he does. I cannot believe that his knowledge is as limited as that.
I pursue my question about where the Labour Party stands. Is it in favour of the Bill as it stands? Would it like to give it a Third Reading as it is? Does it seek to improve it, or do the Amendments which the Opposition have tabled represent the sum total of their erudition, or are they thankful that the problem that we are having to deal with is not theirs? I suspect that the last case is evidence of the first.
I would say, finally, to the hon. Member for Cheetham that, irrespective of what we say to our constituents arising from this Amendment and other Amendments which follow—there are a number of other Amendments in case hon. Members opposite have overlooked that fact—we shall not forget to remind them that the attitude of the Labour Party could be represented by about three simple Clauses, with no safeguards, to abolish the existing system of resale price maintenance. If there are safeguards which the Opposition would wish to have adopted, it is strange that we have not heard about them at all during Second Reading or today.
On the question of the possibilities of jobbery which might be introduced by one of the Amendments, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. H. Lever) was kind enough to say that the case I had presented was theoretically impregnable, but that he had such confidence in the decency and honesty of those in charge of the Board of Trade that he did not think anything of that nature could arise. That merely proves the objective way in which my hon. Friend has put his case to the Committee.
However, that is not the aspect of the matter that I wish to raise. When I spoke earlier I put certain questions to the Government and I wanted the answers because that, after all, was the essence of the Amendments which we were discussing. We wanted to discover what was the precise effect of the changes that had been made after such commotions and such negotiations as had continued all through last week.
I put the questions on that basis, and much to my amazement I have received complete answers, though not solely from the Secretary of State for Industry and Trade, although he has answered them by the manner in which he replied. I think that the clearest answer to those questions was given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay). He explained precisely and exactly what was the meaning of the Amendments which are proposed. He showed that they made practically no difference to the Bill, and I do not think that any hon. Gentleman has been able to contest his view in that respect. I shall come in a moment to the remarks of the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Cole) on the subject of House of Commons control. It is clear from what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North, that the Tory rebels have completely misconceived the meaning of the Amendments.
I recapitulate the state of affairs because these are very important questions. The hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) claimed that there had been a complete change in the original idea of the Bill. That claim has now been repudiated entirely by the Secretary of State for Industry and Trade himself. The hon. Member for Rugby also claimed that there had been a radical change in the Bill in the sense that House of Commons control was restored or introduced where it had never existed before.
The Secretary of State for Industry and Trade has refuted that claim. All that he has said is that there is a minor Amendment introduced which existed in a previous Act to ensure that the Secretary of State for Industry and Trade shall be able to have some influence if he wishes over the sequence in which these matters are referred to the Court. It is a complete misconception for anyone to say that that change constitutes the restoration of House of Commons control, and anyone who does say that is either seeking to delude others, or is deluding himself, and the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South apparently comes into both categories.
The situation, therefore, is quite clear. There were all these commotions, all these negotiations, and all these conversations downstairs last week. Why did they have to bring in the Lord Chancellor if this is what they were going to achieve? Why did they have to bring in the Attorney-General? They had talks with the rebels. They had talks with the neutrals. They had talks with all the others. There was all this commotion, and at the end nothing of importance or significance was altered.
That was the case made by the Secretary of State for Industry and Trade, and it was made very skilfully indeed. What a clever fellow he is. I think that we should pay tribute to him, but the more we pay tribute to the skill with which he has operated his plan, and the more we pay tribute to his obstinacy, the greater is the humiliation of the rebels.
What is their position? What do they intend to do about the Bill? The country must know; the country is entitled to know. The country must know tomorrow that the Secretary of State for Industry and Trade has made it as clear as he possibly can that he has not changed his Bill at all. My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North, has explained absolutely clearly that that is the case, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South, concurs with that.
We might have known that this would happen if we had studied more carefully what the Secretary of State for Industry and Trade said last week, according to the Guardian of Friday:
Mr. Heath is still expecting certain little local difficulties' next week on the committee stage of the Resale Prices Bill.
The need for him to take personal charge of the discussion for the Government is preventing him from going to Geneva for the opening week of the UN Conference of Trade and Development. Asked whether the 'little local difficulties' had been reduced, he explained that a better word would be 'ameliorated'.
What happened last week was that the right hon. Gentleman ameliorated the situation. When I read that word, I wondered where I had read it before, and remembered that there was a conversation in Disraeli's "Coningsby" between Mr. Tadpole and Mr. Taper. Mr. Taper and Mr. Tadpole were discussing the cry for the next election. Mr. Taper or Mr. Tadpole, I forget which, suggested the slogan of ancient institutions and modern improvements, to which Mr. Tadpole or Mr. Taper replied, "No, amelioration instead of improvements."
Nobody knows what it means. But we must at least give the Secretary of State credit for this—now we know the meaning of the word "ameliorated". It means that the rebels have been completely deceived. They have been so effectively soothed that they have been almost entirely anæesthetised. The rebels, therefore, have to explain why they are not proposing to continue the fight which they very bravely started on 10th March.
I do not think that we should be too unfair to the Government in this matter,
because I think that their real intentions were indicated not in the speech of the Secretary of State on the Second Reading, but in the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the end of the debate. Curiously enough, the real intentions of the Government were indicated in the Shakesperian quotation which the Chancellor of the Exchequer employed. He said:
The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel:
I think that this might be called the "hoops of steel" Amendment. These were the instruments which were employed in those downstair negotiations. Not content with using whips and scorpions, the Tories have to have hoops of steel to keep their party together.
But there is something much more important for this country than the unity of the Tory Party. There is a case to be made for resale price maintenance. There is a case to be made against it. But there is no case whatsoever to be made for the kind of "fudge" which we have had presented to us today. Therefore, the best thing that the Government could do would be to take away the whole Bill and introduce another which deals with monopolies over the whole area and try to think it out before they explain it to the House of Commons. Not merely would it save us a lot of trouble. It might even save the Government a lot of trouble; or do they think that they have managed this business so skilfully that they have added to the authority with which the Tory Party will go to the country?
I warn the right hon. Gentleman—he is not here now to hear it—that the best way he can keep the Tory Party united is, to use a vulgar phrase, by "keeping his trap shut". I would recommend that to him in the future. I say quite seriously that when the news of what is really being done penetrates the thick skulls of the Tory rebels we may find that it needs more than hoops of steel to keep the Tory Party together.
I imagine that there have been few occasions in the history of Parliament when we have had a debate lasting for over five hours on something which is not a reality. This Amendment is not a reality. The situation which has been accepted by the Government is not a reality, and every hon. Member knows it.
The answer was given by the Prime Minister when he said that everything that the Tory Party did from the time of his appointment must be governed by the thought that we were going into a General Election. We know very well what has been happening. The Minister and the Government thought that it would be a good thing to come out as champions of the housewives and the shoppers—as the party that will reduce prices. They have, therefore, introduced the Bill.
The rebels on the other hand, have been met in their constituencies with complaints from small shopkeepers, chemists and others, and they are in a quandary as to how they can satisfy those elements. What they have done is to stage a revolt and produce a series of Amendments. In the meantime, however, the Government have negotiated with them, and we have now the series of Amendments that we are discussing. This is a most astonishing situation.
At first the sponsors of the Amendments were championing free enterprise and the operations of a free market, where everybody has his chance. The right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) once said, "Set the people free. Let each win for himself what prizes he can", and so on. They were the champions of this idea. Then the leaders of the Tory Party said, "We have had resale price maintenance for a number of years, but we are so horrified at the excesses that it has created, and the restraints that it has placed upon the free development of our economy and the way in which it is maintaining substantially higher prices than are necessary, that we must get rid of it."
We can quote ad nauseam from the speeches of Ministers to the effect that r.p.m. had to be broken down and abolished except in the rare cases where it could be shown to be in the public interest. Then they produced the Bill. Then the rebels came forward. They had been as horrified as were the Government about the excesses indulged in by private enterprise under r.p.m., but they are equally horrified at the excesses that will occur if r.p.m. is abolished. So the Tory Party is in this quandary: whether they have controlled prices or free prices the bill will have to be paid by the consumers.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and those of my hon. Friends who have put direct questions to the Minister and to the rebels, asking precisely what is the effect of this series of Amendments. It has now become very clear that the whole procedure has been designed to give a cover to the rebels, so that they can pose in their constituencies as having made an effort on behalf of the small shopkeepers when in fact they have done nothing of the kind.
They have taunted us with not knowing what the Amendments mean, but they have also been taunted with not knowing what they mean. This accusation has been flying about on both sides of the Committee. But we know now what the Amendments mean, and the Tory rebels knew from the beginning what they mean. They mean nothing more nor less than the provision of a cover for them in their constituencies—so that they can tell their constituents, "We have forced the Government to make these concessions, and we have done everything we can for the small shopkeepers. We therefore hope that you will vote for us again."
We have asked what differences the Amendments would mean to the Bill as it now stands, and we have had two answers from hon. Members opposite. They say that there is one very important concession, in that the Board of Trade will decide the priorities. That means that Parliament can ask the Board of Trade questions, and that the Board of Trade can instruct the Registrar as to the order in which cases are to be heard. They say that this is a very important provision. Apparently the man from Whitehall knows best.
The hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Cole) said that if these Amendments are accepted the Board of Trade will have power to examine every industrial and commercial enterprise and see what it is doing. If it is indulging in wrong practices the Board of Trade can insist on this being put right.
Precisely. If the Board of Trade does not do it, Members of Parliament can tell the Minister—and this is interference from Whitehall—to instruct private enterprise firms about what they have to do in the interests of the country. This is Government interference with free commercial enterprises being strongly advocated by the Left Wing or by the Right Wing of the Tory Party by way of these Amendments. The whole thing is completely phoney and we know the purpose of it. I am concerned that people in the country, and particularly people in the constituencies of the hon. Members who have moved the Amendments, shall understand what it is about, and act accordingly.
I wish to draw attention to a contradiction which does not appear to be clear in the minds of hon. Members opposite. I am not sufficiently wicked to rub their noses in their humiliation, but I think it wrong that hon. Members should be under a misapprehension. The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) asked whether retailers would be involved in this and he had a straight answer. It is now clear to us all, including the hon. Member, that it is to be the manufacturers, or rather the suppliers, who have to register these agreements. I thought that the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Cole) unfairly attacked a number of hon. Members on this side of the Committee who were associated with a previous Bill on this subject. He criticised us for having no exemption Clause in the Measure—
I asked the hon. Gentleman to be good enough to read the provisions in that Bill again. We did not reach the stage of having a vote upon them. The hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends made sure about that. But if he reads the Bill again, he will see how unfair he was.
The hon. Member misunderstood the position about Amendment No. 115. I join with my hon. Friend the Member
for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) in congratulating the Secretary of State on being behind no fewer than 10 Amendments moved by one group of hon. Members all at once. It was an incredible performance and one can hardly believe that all this originated entirely from the hon. Members. The Minister must have had a hand in the affair. The important point about Amendment No. 115 is that it says, after the brackets within which there is a reference to the Board of Trade:
in respect of all goods…
There is not a specific reference to any application by an individual manufacturer. The Minister made clear that they would be grouped. His hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) intervened to ask a question about what would happen if manufacturers did not apply as a group, and whether an individual manufacturer would be entitled to apply. The answer he received was "Yes", but if manufacturers did that, they would still be taken as a group. I cannot see how there is House of Commons control of anything more than a simple appeal on the question of groups. I am trying to point out the contradiction in the minds of hon. Members opposite who seem to believe that all this represents a tremendous victory. I ask them to realise that it is a victory without any substance. If the position is as was explained by the Secretary of State, I cannot see how we shall be able to exercise any influence on the Secretary of State to move in the same way with the Registrar—
It has not been challenged that the only power of the Board of Trade resulting from these Amendments would be to give directions as to the order in which cases should be taken. Since that is the only power, the only thing for which a person may clamour is for a case to be taken earlier or later. That is the only thing which the President can do and it is the only thing for which hon. Members would be able to clamour.
I am deeply obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. H. Lever). What he has said is true, but I am trying to take it one stage further. I admit that the arguments on priority are good. What my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale said about jobbery is perhaps rather strong, but on the question of the queue we have to bear in mind whether a contract has been continued for a month, a year, or two years. In fact it can relate only to classes and groups of goods and not to individual manufacturers as was alleged by the hon. Member for Gillingham.
There are areas where whole constituencies may depend on the industrial welfare of one or two particular firms. Perhaps on that line I may have been indulging in special pleading in relation to a constituency with a high level of unemployment. I sympathise with hon. Members who make such special pleading, but it is a delusion for hon. Members to think that through the House of Commons they can bring pressure to alter the position in the queue of a particular firm manufacturing certain goods.
It is quite wrong of the rebels, in their anxiety to save face, to pretend that they have done more than they have. This rebellion has been a complete failure. If hon. Members opposite really believed all they said on Second Reading there would be much more vigorous Amendments and substantially more of them. It is sad for the people who placed high hopes on hon. Members opposite and who will be so terribly disappointed when they realise the significance of these Amendments.
I beg to move, in page 1, line 8, to leave out from the words last inserted to "(or" in line 14 and to insert:
where it appears to the Registrar of Restrictive Trading Agreements that any term or condition of a contract for the sale of goods by a supplier to a dealer, or of any agreement between a supplier and a dealer relating to such a sale, in so far as it purports to establish or provide for the establishment of minimum prices to be charged on the resale of the goods in the United Kingdom is operating to the detriment of the public as consumers or users of the goods in question, the Registrar may by notice in writing to the supplier direct that such term or condition shall be void in so far as it purports as aforesaid; and where any such direction has been given it shall after
the expiration of a period of three months from the date of such notice be unlawful for any supplier of goods to which such a direction applies".
With this Amendment we can discuss the Amendment in Clause 6, page 5, line 35, leave out from beginning to "requiring" in line 41 and insert:
a supplier who is aggrieved by any direction given under section I of this Act may appeal to the Registrar against the direction by giving notice of appeal to the Registrar within three months after the date of the notice of the direction in respect of any goods to which the direction applies".
The object of this Amendment is to achieve the main purpose of the Bill, to safeguard the public from hurtful resale price agreements without imposing too great a burden on the majority of manufacturers who use resale price maintenance which they conceive to be for the long-term good of the public. As the Bill is drawn it suggests that all resale price maintenance conditions are bad until they are proved good. This Amendment requires a prima facie case to be made before the burden of that proof is imposed on the supplier.
The principle should be not that all sheep in the flock are black until they are proved white, but that only sheep which look black must prove their whiteness. The Amendment requires a prima facie case to be made before a supplier is made to stand trial. This is a longstanding principle of English law. Although, under the Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1956, the Registrar's functions are executive rather than judicial, his intended duties under Clause 5 of the Bill are quasi-judicial, or at least require judgment, in selecting cases for exemption.
If the referring of a case to the Court for exemption is thought to be a proper exercise of the Registrar's functions, so may well be the giving of directions within the provisions of the new Measure in operation in relation to other goods, subject, of course, to the right of appeal to the Court. There are already bodies in existence which can draw attention to abuses under r.p.m. agreements to the Registrar, such as the newly-created consumer councils and many others.
We have been told repeatedly that the Bill is before us for our consideration and improvement. Changes have been made and discussed at great length. I believe that this is a very valuable improvement in the Bill, and I put it forward with great pleasure.
The hon. Baronet the Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Sir J. Barlow) has made a good case for the Amendment, which, clearly, would do some of the things which some hon. Members have said that they want to do. Some parts of it would certainly achieve something, and a good deal more than the Amendments which we have spent the last five hours debating. This is one reason why I put my name to the Amendment. I should not have liked to see it removed from the Notice Paper so that we had no possibility of discussing it and to hear the Minister's answer.
For those reasons, and because I am still eagerly awaiting what the Government have to say about it, I have much pleasure in supporting the hon. Baronet.
I, too, put my name on the Notice Paper in support of the Amendment. I support it now for the original reason for which I attached my name to it—that I thought it a good Amendment and a powerful improvement of the Bill. But I also do so because this is the acid test of the sincerity of the Tory rebels in their ostentatious—or perhaps the correct word is ostensible—rebellion against the Government.
I am waiting with great interest not merely to hear what the Government say about the Amendment but to see what is done now by those Tory Members who spoke and voted against the Second Reading of the Bill for the reason that they wanted to see enacted in it precisely the improvement which would be enacted in it if this Amendment were carried. I should like to hear why right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite do not support this Amendment—if they do not—when they took part in this shadow boxing and sham fight about which there has been so much noise and discussion.
This gives them very much more than is given by the Amendments which the Committee has accepted. This takes away the whole sting or stigma of guilt to which they objected so much. It leaves everything in operation unless and until the Registrar serves notice about a particular agreement or a particular part of a particular agreement. It leaves the price fixer to defend his arrangement until then.
I do not want to take the time of the Committee on a point which is too clear for argument. The Amendment, in clear and unequivocal terms, does what is pretended to be done not clearly, very equivocally and perhaps not at all in the Amendments which we have been debating for more than five hours. Why do they prefer—if they do prefer—a doubtful, equivocal, ambiguous and perhaps non-existent Amendment to the Bill in the sense that they require to the Bill to be amended instead of the clear, unequivocal Amendment which the hon. Baronet the Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Sir J. Barlow) put down and which my hon. Friends and I have supported
What is wrong with it? Why do not the Government accept it? If the Government are really saying that what they intended to do is exactly what is proposed in this Amendment, why do they not at once get up, save the Committee's time, and say, "Certainly, this is what we intended all the time. We never had any other idea. We are very grateful to the hon. Baronet, to the hon. Members for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) and Dudley (Mr. Wigg)"—and, indeed, to me for making absolutely certain, not merely that the Amendment was on the Notice Paper but that it would not be taken off, and would be moved?
That would mean that they would really have the opportunity of doing simply, clearly, directly and unequivocally what they said they wanted. That the rebels wanted, that the Opposition wanted and that everyone wanted—until they had the opportunity to get, and then they all ran away from it. Would that not be better, and would we not save a lot of time?
The Government will have a lot of difficulty about time in spite of, or even, possibly, because of, what they have agreed to and the bargains made—now that they have been shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale and others to be so utterly meaningless and non-existent. Here they have a chance to stop the debate by accepting the Amendment and let us get on to things that really are in dispute—because, from everything so far said, this Amendment is not in dispute at all.
I am content to leave it there, at any rate for the time being. I want to hear what the Minister has to say; and whether he intends to accept the Amendment. If he intends to accept it, why did he not think of it First? Why was it not in the Bill to start with? If he does not intend to accept it—why not? And how does he reconcile his refusal to accept it with all the protestations that this is what he always intended? I leave it there, and wait with great interest to hear what the Minister has to say against the Amendment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) has lavished a number of encomiums on the drafting of the Amendment, which he contrasted extremely favourably with the previous Amendments. I must say that I do not at all agree with him there. The previous Amendments were absolutely non-ambiguous; their meanings were debated for several hours. In fairness to the Minister in charge of the Bill—he is a man of honour—he did not attempt to say that they really gave any substance to the allegations made by those who moved them, or that they would make any material difference to those who seek to maintain their price systems.
He explained the Amendments. It is true that his explanation was drenched in a great deal of amusing irrelevancy on differences of opinion among some of my hon. Friends, and the fact that I, now and again, was known to hold an heretical opinion on this and that subject, but he was absolutely candid that these Amendments were worthless to implement—
That was only an introductory word, Sir Samuel, to make plain that I am b bringing to bear a majestic impartiality to the consideration of the present Amendment; and that I do not in the least agree with the criticisms of ambiguity that my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne made of the previous Amendments—
Only ambiguous in one respect. It was pointed out, I do not know with what force, first that the Bill as originally drafted contained a stigma, and then that the Amendments we have just accepted removed that stigma. I accept everything my hon. Friend says about the doubtfulness of this proposition, but I say that this Amendment would, if adopted, really remove the stigma, and I therefore want to know why it is not accepted.