Orders of the Day — Commission for Industry and Manpower Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th April 1970.

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Photo of Mr Robert Carr Mr Robert Carr , Mitcham 12:00 am, 8th April 1970

But not because of a statutory prices and incomes policy. I have said, and the right hon. Lady has quite fairly quoted me in previous debates as saying, that some of the early reports of the Prices and Incomes Board had a powerful educative effect which was very beneficial, but that was before the day when the whole thing got prostituted by detailed statutory powers of control. That has always been the distinction we have made.

I shall now indicate by criticism of some of the main proposals of the Bill the sort of Commission which the next Conservative Government will create in the next Parliament. First, however, in case it is not already clear, let me state categorically that in creating the right sort of agency the next Conservative Government will inevitably, unfortunately, have to make radical changes in the composition, the constitution, the terms of reference, the procedures and the powers of the C.I.M. as proposed in the Bill. It is only fair to put that statement firmly on record.

There are many important criticisms to be made of the main provisions of the Bill. I obviously cannot and I certainly will not try to deal with many of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Dudley Smith) will raise a few more that I leave out, but a lot of other criticisms of great substance will have to await the Committee stage.

First, there is the composition of the Commission. To show our idea of what is needed, I want to quote a very brief extract from the speech made at Truro by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on 24th September, 1968, when he said: The Monopolies Commission needs to be streamlined. It should be staffed with a first- rate fulltime Board ready to act as speedily as business decisions today demand. The C.I.M. as constituted in the Bill fails completely to pass that test. We still have the same number of members, only one of whom has to be full time. Nothing has been said in the documents or in speeches about the staffing of the Commission, or its professionalism. The Commission is inadequate for its present tasks. It is hopelessly inadequate for the wide range of new powers that are being added to it, even if one agreed with all those new powers being added.

Secondly, we have the power of reference to the Commission resting solely with Ministers—a point which the hon. Lady specifically mentioned. We are sure that that is now wrong. It may have been all right in the early days of monopolies policy, but we came to the conclusion by 1964 that the time had come to make a change. Selection of cases will always be difficult, and always open to suspicion about motives of one kind or another. We think that the initiative ought not to be solely in political hands, particularly if this is to become a more active part of policy.

Examples of reference and non-reference in recent years have given cause for concern. There was the G.E.C.-A.E.I. merger—not referred. Why? Sponsorship, I suppose, by the I.R.C. was thought to be sufficient. But the fact that something is sponsored behind closed doors by one agency of the Government does not provide the public accountability which the right hon. Lady says is the principle of the Bill.

There was the Reed-I.P.C. merger—on what possible grounds was that not referred? It was a conglomerate, and was certainly market dominant in some areas. If ever there was an obvious case for reference before the merger went through, that was it.

No one knows why the proposed Burmah Oil-Laporte merger was referred; but the merger was stopped as a result. On what basis was it referred? Other oil companies are deep in the chemical industry—why not Burmah Oil? What has been the result? The result of the Burmah Oil-Laporte merger being prevented means that we are now almost certain to have a 20 per cent. stake by the Belgian company. That may be good or it may be bad—I do not know—but by saying that the Burmah Oil-Laporte proposal had to be referred, we have created a position in which this British company, with its know-how, could—I do not say that it will—pass into foreign control.

Another example is the recent I.C.I. proposal to take over Viyella, Carringtons and Dewhurst. In this case we had the Paymaster-General apparently setting himself up as his own personal alternative commission.

All this is not public accountability. Examples like these provide the reasons which make us strongly recommend that the time has now come when we should establish a registrar of monopolies who would have the duty to initiate references. There is here a difference between monopolies and restrictive trade practices. It is not as easy to define in a Bill what one means by a market and by market dominance as it was to define criteria of trade practices. Because of that difference, we do not think that the registrar of monopolies could have quite the full, unfettered, independent power of the Registrar of Restrictive Trade Practices. We therefore suggest that while the registrar should have power to initiate, Ministers should have power to veto, because that would leave it in the hands of Parliament. Parliament could see what had been done, and have an opportunity to examine.

It is sheer nonsense for the right hon. Lady to talk of our idea of a registrar as though it were some device to weaken the powers of the Commission. The reverse is the truth. It is intended to toughen the Commission, and to give criteria to an independent body to bring cases——