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

I fully accept the point which my hon. Friend makes. When we are in a position to put these proposals in detail, those questions will be gone into and fully debated. But, just as we came to the conclusion that a Registrar of Restrictive Trade Practices was, on balance, right, so we believe that, on balance, a registrar in this case—although not without its difficulties and snags—is preferable to continuing to leave the matter entirely in the hands of Ministers. I fully accept, however, that this is a matter which should be debated across the Floor of the House and on each side of the House.

I come now to the scale and type of powers given to Ministers under the Bill. The powers are virtually limitless because they are so loosely defined. The right hon. Lady said that they were really not very different from those which had existed before, and I agree about that; but what is very different is the context in which they will be used. There will now be an almost limitless range of pretexts on which a company, as opposed to a whole industry, may be referred to the Commission. Once a reference has been made, and once an adverse report is in the Minister's hands, the Minister will have power to do almost anything. The Minister is in no way limited by the Bill to implementating the proposals and recommendations in the Commission's report. She can throw them out of the window. So long as she has an adverse report, she has power to do almost anything, without definition or limitation.

Yet, funnily enough, amid all that power, there is no mention of one power which is increasingly important in the international world, namely, the possibility of using the weapon of tariff reduction as one of the most important means of enforcing competition on any sluggish giant or any sort of sluggish company in the country.

There is another danger that, unlike the monopolies legislation hitherto, the Bill gives the Minister power to make orders against individual companies instead of against whole industries. Thus, one company can be penalised vis-à-vis its competitors not because it has been shown to be behaving more badly than any of its competitors but just because of the chance that it has been investigated and its competitors have not. This is open to grave opportunity for dangerous unfairness.

One new feature in the Bill, which we thoroughly approve of and which, therefore, it is only fair to mention, is the inclusion of nationalised industries. [An HON. MEMBER: "The right hon. Gentleman would."] Yes, and I hope that hon. Members opposite do as well.

I come now to Part II of the Bill, which I shall deal with in omnibus fashion—the compulsory notification of increases in prices, charges, incomes and dividends. This epitomises the whole philosophy and approach to which we object and which so palpably has failed to work in recent years. Let us consider the enormous amount of work and the bureaucracy which it will involve if this becomes a permanent feature of our system. What purpose will it serve? Most of the time, it will be done for love of paper-pushing, occasionally, perhaps, for the purpose of providing information for the work of the Commission. But are Ministers really claiming that they have not known which industries or companies ought in the past to have been referred to the Monopolies Commission for lack of some compulsory notification system? I do not believe that they could substantiate such a claim, and I am certain that we do not want this compulsory notification system for that purpose.

If it has a real purpose, it is quite different, namely, the purpose of giving Ministers and civil servants power to influence the commercial decisions of companies behind the scenes; to make companies subservient to Whitehall. Quite apart from the ant-heap of bureaucracy which it will throw up, it seems likely to create less competition rather than more, to create less of a competitive and more of a play-safe psychology. To create a situation in which, before a company can make decisions, it has to go along to its guardian under-secretary in the appropriate Department and say, "Please, Sir, I want to do this, and may I do that?", is not the way to create an environment in which we can encourage competitive, vigorous, risk-taking, innovating, fast-moving boards of directors and managements in this country. On the contrary, this running to the gentleman in Whitehall is one of the most enervating influences on British industry; and it is disastrous if it is continued.

So the Bill brings into focus the real difference in economic philosophy between the two sides of the House and brings into focus the choice in economic terms which the country must make. Britain must have an effective economic driving force if we are to have an expanding economy—expanding in scale, in capital intensity, in the level of innovation and efficiency.

There are only two main alternative driving forces. Either may be successful. One of the driving forces is State direction and control. The other is the driving force of the market economy, of competitive free enterprise—profitable free enterprise, profitable enterprise in a competitive environment, individual responsibility, with freedom; and, if there is freedom, sometimes the abuses that go with freedom.

In Britain under a Socialist Labour Government neither of these driving forces is given anything like full throttle. Labour dislikes and distrusts the market force economy. It tends to choke it with interventiton, to starve it of incentive, and to weaken its toughness and self-reliance with too much subsidy and advice.

On the other hand, Labour Government draws back from full-blooded State direction. Labour Governments meddle but do not manage. The meddling leads to muddling. The muddling leads to the need for more meddling and intervention. That is the dreary vicious circle, not just of this Labour Government but of all past Labour Governments. It is what springs from their basic beliefs and dogma.

In Britain we must make a clearer choice. There is no need to go to either extreme, but we must come down more firmly on one side of the fence or the other—either much less intervention, much more freedom, much more incentive, much more dependence on the market economy; or—this is a perfectly valid alternative—more full-blooded State direction and planning.

There is no doubt about our choice. We believe that there is no doubt about the country's choice when it is put to them. When we talk about the market economy and freedom, that is not the same as a free-for-all. We mean freedom with responsibility. We mean liberty with order. We believe that the prime job of government is to lay down the rules by law, whether in the field of taxation, or in industrial relations, or in social policy; second, to appoint, where necessary, the referees to judge when the rules have been broken and, if necessary, to take corrective action. But within the limits of those rules government should leave the maximum freedom for the individual to get on with his job in his own way. In that way we believe that we shall get responsible private interest marching in step with public policy.

We believe that that is the key to success in a free democracy. If that is not the key, right hon. and hon. Members opposite must come clean with the alternative choice, which is much, much more State direction, control and ownership. Let them put that choice clearly to the country. We have no doubt about the answer. It is because we are firm in our belief about freedom and the market economy that we are voting against the Bill tonight.