Orders of the Day — Prices and Incomes Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th July 1966.

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Photo of Mr David Steel Mr David Steel , Roxburghshire, Selkirkshire and Peeblesshire 12:00 am, 14th July 1966

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Park) has said. Both he and the right hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Cousins) were guilty of self-contradiction in that they said, on the one hand, that the Bill is a threat to the freedoms of our society and that it introduces severe measures of compulsion, and, on the other, that at the end of the four-month period, when the National Board for Prices and Incomes reports, either the employers or the unions might reject the Report. They cannot have it both ways.

I believe that the Bill is not a brilliant Measure. It is a very modest Measure. I do not believe that it has all the threats of compulsion and the slippery slope behind it which are detailed in the Opposition's Amendment. For that reason, if for no other, we on this bench oppose the Opposition Amendment and support the Government on the Bill.

The Amendment speaks of State control of prices, wages, dividends. and…. direction of labour. This harks back to the old idea of finding Socialism under the bed, the sort of activity which I should have thought we might well leave to the Prime Minister in times of national crisis.

The part of the Bill about which my Party is concerned is Clause 24, which has certain dangers, exempting from the the effects of the Restrictive Trades Practices Act certain trade agreements which might be arrived at to meet the requirement of the National Board for Prices and Incomes.

I can see the legal necessity for this, but it has many dangers in it. If a variety of manufacturers came together and sought a price agreement to meet the requirements of the National Board, that agreement could become permanent. When it was agreed that there should be an increase in the price of the commodity, it could be a flat range increase, making the price agreement a permanent feature. This is a real danger and we shall want assurances about the effect of the Clause.

Most of the speeches have been concentrated not so much on the Bill itself as on the Government's prices and incomes policy as a whole, and I think rightly so. The Liberal Party is less happy about the general tenor of the policy than it is with the Bill. In particular, we have two basic doubts about the direction in which the Government are moving.

First, I believe that, despite all the genuine efforts of the First Secretary of State in preaching the cause of a prices and incomes policy, the impression has none the less got abroad that this is a negative, restricting policy and that large wage increases are something which the Government think are bad and which they are determined to stop. I know that this is not really the intention of the policy, but it is the effect of the policy as understood by most people. It is essential that this negative aspect of the policy be removed and that the Government change course to a more positive direction.

We have not got too high a wage structure. We have too low a wage structure. Some figures were given earlier—I have some others—about the comparative hourly average wage earnings in this country with some of our European industrial competitors. Taking 100 as the British index figure in 1953, the average hourly wage earnings ten years later were in Britain 178, but in Italy 198, in France 231, and in West Germany, 209.