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 David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford 12:00 am, 8th April 1970

I resist the temptation to comment at great length on the speech of the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson), except to express surprise that he was not a little more cheerful. Perhaps if the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dickens) had been "on" tonight he would have been more cheerful. After all, for hon. Members opposite this should be a rather cheerful occasion. You, Mr. Speaker, and I and many hon. Members, have been here for four or five years listening to the doleful appeals of hon. Members opposite to their Front Bench to get rid of the income legislation. Now it has gone and this is the wake. I should have expected a little more cheerfulness in the comments of the hon. Member. Unless his gloom is under-pinned by the certain knowledge that, now the whole dotty paraphernalia of the Department of Employment and Productivity is to be turned into other channels, it will be no more effective as it has been over the years of incomes restraint.

That is my fear, and if I sound gloomy it is for that reason. I mistrust the ability or capacity of the new sponsoring department, the Department of Employment and Productivity, to pursue desirable aims of public policy in this field in an effective way. I believe, as my hon. Friends believe, that powerful instruments of public policy are needed to spur competition. I agree most strongly with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) that competition is not a natural state of affairs and that constant intervention is needed to maintain a competitive situation, and constant watchfulness.

In this sense, the distinction which the hon. Member for Tottenham tried to draw between hon. Members opposite whom he described as interventionists and those on this side of the House whom he regards as non-interventionists is unreal. This problem requires very sophisticated consistent and systematic intervention.

Those in favour of intervention in the modern situation cannot just pass a few laws and sit back; they must be interventionists. This is particularly needed—it is a new phenomenon of the 'sixties and 'seventies—when it comes to policing, and spotting the areas where the actions of Government, often unconsciously as customer and in procurement policies, or through statutes and fiscal policies, the full significance of which may not be clearly seen, stultifies competition. The task is to spot where the process is adding to the constipation of the competitive system and where necessary changes should be made in the public and private sectors. This cannot be done just by a Monopolies Commission or the Commission for Industry and Manpower idea proposed in this Bill.

The hon. Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Barnett) put it very clearly. He made quite clear that this alone is not sufficient if we are talking seriously about competitive policy in the modern situation.

Of course we must look at many areas where there is an abuse of market power. Such areas are very difficult to define. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cook) showed with legal precision what the immense difficulties are. It is necessary to have a Monopolies Commission instrument of a strengthened and streamlined kind such as was suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath), less than two years ago, to cope with this limited aspect of competitive policy.

But other things are additionally necessary. Earlier in the debate someone made the gibe that perhaps there has been a change of mind on this side of the House and that we give greater attention to these matters than we did five years ago. Of course more attention is necessary because there has grown up in the last few years a great obsession with the cult of bigness. I do not say that that has been the inheritance exclusively of the Labour Government. It has been very much a feature of the early and middle sixties. The Labour Government's Minister of Technology, with his ever-boyish desire to be on the latest trend and in the latest fashion, early became an adherent of bigness. The voice of industrial policy as it emanates from Whitehall and the Ministry of Technology is a voice in favour of bigness and the need for large firms. We heard more about that from the right hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Frederick Lee) this afternoon. I am not sure that he was right nor that the clichés about bigness are right any more.

As we move into the seventies, small firms with high innovation, the high technology firms, and even firms such as motor manufacturers, will have immense opportunities. Not bigness but smallness and flexibility will be the key qualities. Yet for the moment the Government's prevailing philosophy is bigness. That makes it more and more necessary to have sharp instruments for anti-monopoly and for competitive policy.

I may be offering hostages to fortune, but I think the Prices and Incomes Board and the kind of analyses it undertook in its early days were in some cases, but not all, rather useful. They had a great educative value. In the very early days before the whole organisation became distracted, it was interesting to see the analytical approach to industries where competition should be working and was not. Analyses was needed to show the fault lay within Government policy, or Government industrial relations, to show where a competitive system was not operating. But it all went sour, and for the same reason the whole "Neddy" exercise went sour. They took on the task of trying to cope with an incomes policy. They took the poisoned chalice, drank from it. From then on the whole organisation had withered and writhed and produced less and less effective reports.

So I concede that the analytical approach to the patterns of competition in industry which the early P.I.B. reports attempted to present was necessary and useful and desirable. So the question arises and is presented to us by this Bill of who carries out this function and under the sponsorship of which Ministries? I suppose that in a logical world or in mildly sensible Whitehall the functions would be carried out under the sponsorship or under the paternal umbrella of the Ministry of Technology, or the Ministry of Industry as the Ministry of Technology has become.

The difficulty here is the one to which I have already pointed—that the Minister of Technology is the voice of big industry. It is at the bigness end of White-hall. To put the agencies under the umbrella of a Ministry which is dedicated to bigness in all forms and to pushing industries together and calling things industries which are not industries—something like the ball-bearing industry or that sort of concept—and imagining that they will stay together and be big and competitive because they are big—to mix that with these new agencies would be nonsense.

The Ministry of Technology is not merely a poacher—as opposed to a game-keeper—in private industry, being in favour of big private industry. It is actively supporting the activity of the public sector in monopoly practices, by, for example, creating bodies like the British Research and Development Corporation which will drive private enterprise research out of business or by supporting the Post Office Corporation as the Post Office suppliers which has already driven private enterprise suppliers of Post Office equipment out of business.