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 Dr Michael Winstanley Dr Michael Winstanley , Cheadle 12:00 am, 8th April 1970

I apologise for an apparent discourtesy in that I had to be absent from the debate for a short time on an important constituency matter of which some hon. Members know and whose sympathy I have. I assure those hon. Members whose speeches I have missed that I intended no discourtesy to them; and that I shall read their speeches with great interest.

I have listened to the speeches of the hon. Members for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and Guildford (Mr. David Howell) with interest. It seemed to me that they both spent their time on interesting philosophical discussions of what is at the heart of this matter: what can we do either to restore competition, or even to do without competition? The approach of the two hon. Members was rather different.

I say at once that we on this bench have very grave doubts about the Bill, and our doubts are not yet fully resolved. In other words, we are not yet wholly lost to the Government spokesman—not wholly. How we vote later will be largely determined by his answers to certain questions I have to put.

We support the merger of the Prices and Incomes Board with the Monopolies Commission. We ourselves have in the past recommended just that step. We think that, essentially, the two are operating in the same territory and should be operating in an integrated way. Nevertheless, we are very doubtful about some of the Bill's nosey-parkering provisions, which seem to go much further than is necessary. We do not say that some action with regard to monopolies, mergers and restrictive practices of one kind and another is not necessary, but until we have heard a lot more by way of justification we do not wish to support what I describe as nosey-parkering provisions which would cause difficulties without producing corresponding benefits.

It may be wondered whether we are doing the right job at all. In dealing with the problem in this way, are we acting as we have done in so many other directions? Are we taking an existing pattern in industry which is not working satisfactorily and trying to make it work somehow, rather than attempting to change to a better pattern? I believe that both sides are inclined to do that even with industrial relations.

We are constantly hearing, particularly from this side of the House, of different schemes to enforce the performance of agreements instead of trying to improve the machinery for making sensible agreements in the first place. I would like to see a more radical approach to the whole question, rather than just taking things as they are on the assumption that they must remain as they are but introducing a whole series of measures to force them to work.

The right hon. Lady the Secretary of State has told us that the principle behind the Bill is public accountability. There is nothing wrong with that. We entirely support anyone who is trying to get more or more adequate public accountability from an industry, be it large or small. The Prime Minister has said that the Bill is an instrument to correct abuses of market power, but I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mitcham (Mr. R. Carr) when he says that the Bill does only half the job. There is no mention of, or attempt to deal with abuse of the market power of labour. I do not wish to over-emphasise that side of the matter, or to say that the abuse is constant or all-embracing, but there seems to us, or there did seem to us, an important absence there.

We are dealing with a subject which seems to me to highlight the essential differences between the political parties. The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) referred to himself as a total interventionist. The hon. Member for Guildford told us that he was just an interventionist. We on this bench wish to make it clear that we are interventionists only to such an extent as is necessary. Our policies for industry are aimed as far as possible at creating the kind of situation in which intervention will not be necessary.

We are dealing with a major problem which confronts all the political parties and to which none of them has yet found an adequate answer. It is the problem of the increasing size of various kinds of organisation. We accept that in the modern competitive world situation, organisations in certain spheres must inevitably get larger and larger. We fully accept that in certain kinds of industry—science-based industries and advanced technology—organisations must be very large if they are to thrive. But when organisations get very large one has new problems to deal with. This problem has been referred to by both sides.

How does one provide public account-ability and preserve competition in a large scale enterprise at the same time allowing it to be humane and sensitive? Little has been said about the rôle of those who work in large-scale industry and this is hardly mentioned in the Bill. Will the Commission have power, in dealing with mergers, to comment on the interests of workers?

The Government have not found the answer. At one time the answer was to be nationalisation. Once an industry was nationalised, it was thought that it would automatically become accountable and sensitive. We know from our experience that this is not so. I do not suggest that it never can be, and I welcome the experiments of the statutory undertakings who are trying to introduce regional competition. The statutory undertakers have attempted to introduce a competitive atmosphere; for instance, the electricity boards are competing with other sources of energy.

But, in general, we must accept that the nationalised industries have not turned out to be the publicly accountable bodies, sensitive to the people who work in and depend on them, that many hon. Members on the Government benches hoped.