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 Norman Atkinson Mr Norman Atkinson , Tottenham 12:00 am, 8th April 1970

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for making that point. I will not paint the lily by going into what was said by the Leader of the Opposition. What my hon. Friend said is quite correct. I would add that the whole of the case was put in the debate in the House before the Easter Recess, when we presented the idea for a Socialist Budget, has been borne out by experience.

It is an important part of trade union concern to be involved in price stability, particularly retail prices. Price inflation over the years has prevented any radical revision of the share of the cake that goes to wage earners. There has been little movement over a period of 40 years between the share that goes to rent, interest and profit and other unearned income and that which goes to wages. Over a period of about 30 years there has been a shift of about 4 per cent. This is a matter about which we are most concerned when trying to devise some method of slowing down price inflation.

We all recognise that rigid price control is costly and unworkable. At the moment only one commodity is controlled by the Government, and that is milk. This may seem surprising when one hears discussions about what should be the Government's attitude on the control of prices. There is an argument taking place over the price of bread, but the Government have no control over the price of bread, and this must be remembered.

Housewives are often advised that if they wish to cut the cost of living they should take the trouble to shop around. But that is not as easy as it seems. To shop around effectively one would have to have an immense intelligence network in the district, with a member of the family going to the shops and radioing the information back to mother, saying that so-and-so shop had taken 3d. off tinned fruit. Another aspect to be borne in mind is that few cut-price goods, as many traders will confess, are genuine price reductions.

The question is to find a sensible and attractive voluntary scheme to influence retail prices. I believe that this is possible and I would make one suggestion to the House. I have discussed this idea with industry and with the distributive trades, who thought it a good idea, and it also has trade union support. I would suggest a scheme of merit awards on the lines of an adaptation of the Royal Warrant system. At present, a few traders and manufacturers are granted permission by the Queen to affix to their price labels the Royal insignia and the use of the words, "By Appointment". This, for obvious reasons, is a much sought-after privilege, but I believe it is a privilege that should be earned. I feel that we could replace that system by a merit award scheme under the auspices of the commission which we are discussing today.

The criteria would involve price stability over a reasonable period and guarantees about weight and quality. The awards would be reproduced on labels on goods, including the maximum price registered. Such a scheme could be supported by a massive Press and television campaign, which would obviously bring sales benefits to those who exhibited a merit award on their products.

This could be totally voluntary and would be an attractive way of over-coming some of the difficulties. It is in line with the Consumer Council's ideas. The Consumer Council has had a lot to say about this in many reports, notably one in 1968, which said: Another problem caused by the end of R.P.M. is the frequent lack of the yardstick of a manufacturer's recommended price to enable consumers to measure the size of the bargain they are being offered when retailers advertise cut prices. In January, 1968 the Council sent a memorandum to the Monopolies Commission which is enquiring into the practice of recommending resale prices. In it, we argued that manufacturers should be allowed to tell retailers and the public the 'usual' retail prices of their goods. But two safeguards are needed.The practice should not be allowed to be used as a means of maintaining unjustifiably large retail margins.Where 'usual' prices are used as a means of advertising the bargains, the prices crossed out should genuinely be those at which substantial amounts of goods are sold. That is in line with many of the ideas floated by the Council.

Another aspect of the problem is the coming of decimal currency. Certainly, during the first few years of change-over it would help considerably to have printed on price labels and other marks on products the maximum price and its conversion into decimal currency. That would help to give considerable confidence that the cost of living was not accelerating in the way that many people suggest. It would be an attractive scheme which should be considered by the Government. I hope that we shall have an opportunity in Committee to look at some of these suggestions.

If the Bill is strengthened in the way proposed by the T.U.C. and many trades unions, it could be a tremendous instrument for us to intervene in the economy, making the kind of adjustments we have argued about for so long and making it possible to double the rate of economic growth. That is why we are concerned with these things. It is because of our dissatisfaction at the rate of growth and because we as a Labour Movement believe that what we should try to achieve is a high-wage economy with stable prices. It is my belief that the first Government which can produce that for this country will be in office for many years to come.