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 Kenneth Lewis Mr Kenneth Lewis , Rutland and Stamford 12:00 am, 8th April 1970

This Bill is the biggest example of bureaucratic bumbledom we have yet had from a Department which has come to Parliament with some supreme examples of that kind of thinking. The Department of Employment and Productivity, headed by the right hon. Lacy, is seeking to establish a record for putting Bills through the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham (Mr. R. Carr) said that he saw a General Election ahead and therefore there seems to be a certain amount of speed in the Department wanting to get this Bill on the Statute Book.

I am beginning to wonder why it is so anxious to get this Bill through. The Bill claims to be an amalgamation of the Monopolies Commission and the National Board for Prices and Incomes. The right hon. Lady and her predecessors on many occasions in this House have stated their firm support of the prices and incomes policy. They said at the beginning that it was hoped the policy would go from a statutory policy to a voluntary one. If they really believe in the National Board for Prices and Incomes, I cannot understand why they are now proceeding to demolish it, unless they are trying to wrap up the old statutory proposals of the Board in a voluntary guise under this Bill. If, by mischance, they are brought back into power, which is unlikely to happen, we should soon find that the incomes side of the prices and incomes policy would again be statutory.

I do not believe this marriage to be necessary. It has taken place at too late an age to be very productive in the long term and it will be disruptive in the short term. The trouble is that this Government have a tendency to legislate for the sake of it. Do not Ministers understand that industry in trying to get our exports going has enough to do without having to deal with new complicated Bills which seem to roll off the parliamentary line month by month.

We had a great deal from the right hon. Lady today about the great necessity to keep down prices. It was the most utter load of nonsense since she and the Government know very well that, first of all, they have failed to keep down prices, and that if they had not allowed prices to rise we would have been in an even more disastrous state than we are now. It was obvious that prices had to rise following devaluation. Furthermore, when the wage increases that we have seen in the last few months get through the pipeline, if prices do not rise to match up to them this Government will be faced with the prospect of another devaluation. Indeed I believe that is what their policies are heading for.

The present improvement in the balance of payments is likely to fade and if, by mischance, they are returned to Government, the country will be faced with devaluation. Certainly this would be the case if the policies enunciated by the right hon. Lady were brought into operation and if prices were held down. Therefore, anything in the Bill which suggests that the Chancellor could possibly subscribe to a policy of keeping down prices is a mirage.

One implication in the Bill is that there are too many small companies in this country and that we want fewer and larger units. In fact, 28 firms in this country are responsible for about 50 per cent., of the manufacturing assets. This does not include the nationalised industries, although there is the prospect of more nationalisation even if the Government are not now prepared to put nationalisation into their election manifesto. Instead, they put it in the Gas Bill and the Electricity Bill. They are giving powers to the nationalised industries to go into the oil business and to engage in the manufacture of electrical plant and so on. In other words, the monopolies are likely to grow in the nationalised sector if the Government have their way.

Apart from that, mergers have been taking place at a very fast rate in the private sector in the last two or three years. It is interesting to note that the Government say in the Bill that they wish to control mergers. The Government have power to control them now, but in recent times we have seen a number of mergers taking place which the Government have not felt it necessary to refer to the Monopolies Commission as it exists at present. They have allowed mergers to go through on the nod in certain circumstances where they have suited Government policies.

Hon. Members must ask themselves if we are not in danger of allowing bigness to go too far. Our small companies provide a considerable part of our export effort. Furthermore, they are the companies which grow bigger and become the giants of tomorrow. If we believe in enterprise, and if we believe not only in a market economy, as we on this side of the House do, but also with Hon. Members opposite in a mixed economy, we have to realise that encouragement needs to be given to small companies to enable them to grow. In a Bill of this kind, it would be wrong to discourage the small man who employs, say, 500 or more workers and who can develop by taking over other companies. It may be that we should consider mergers at the lower level as being of more value to the country than mergers at the higher level. Very often mergers at the higher level create a situation where mergers among smaller companies become impossible, because even an amalgamated group of small companies can no longer compete with the giants.