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 Leslie Huckfield Mr Leslie Huckfield , Nuneaton 12:00 am, 8th April 1970

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. David Mitchell) will forgive me if I do not follow him into some of the more European aspects he laid before us.

We have heard a lot tonight, particularly from hon. Members opposite, about the need for mergers and increasing size in British industry. We have Government bodies such as the I.R.C. which are primarily designed to encourage size. Wherever one looks today, there seem to be mergers and acquisitions and firms and companies and assets increasing all the time. The trouble is that, amongst all the bodies we have, or are to have, to watch over the increase in the size of companies, nobody seems very concerned with the human aspects.

In this, I speak with some reference to my constituency of late. Many of my constituents in Nuneaton work in the Coventry car trade and have been concerned about recent decisions by the Chrysler-Rootes Motor Corporation. I know that many too are concerned about the effect of the merger which produced the British Leyland Motor Corporation. In all these mergers and increases in size, there seems great emphasis on the need to grow bigger in order to compete with the Americans and the Europeans, but not half as much emphasis as I would wish on some of the often very serious human consequences.

Whenever a backbench Member, speaking from a constituency point of view, questions a Minister about the I.R.C. or the Prices and Incomes Board or the Monopolies Commission in relation to some of the human factors, he is told time and again that this or that body has no responsibility or no say in the human side of the matter.

I would like to have seen in this Bill much more reference to the very serious human consequences of many of the decisions which industry will have to take. Those decisions will mean more mergers. We had an interesting example during the week before last when a prominent trade union leader tried to exercise or to have his say in the proposed merger between B.O.A.C. and B.U.A. One was surprised to see how many voices were raised opposite against the men who work in the industry having their say. If we are to have more mergers under the new Commission and more increases in size, let us not only have concern for the human aspect but, above all, give the workers the right to have their say as well.

I wish there had been more reference in the Bill to giving the workers a chance to have their say because, after all, we are talking about people who often spend their whole working lives in an industry. Surely they have a right to be heard as well.

We have heard a great deal about size and pubic control of monopoly, near-monopoly, duopoly, oligolopy and various other "opolies", which all mean that industry is getting bigger and more inhuman. But the difficulty is that certain industries have recently been getting bigger and not so subject to public control. I wish that the Bill had included some references to the need for more public control. This is something which the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, the Monopolies Commission and the Prices and Incomes Board are not equipped to do. I wish that it had referred to investigating future public ownership and public accountability, to ensure that these acquisitions did not get even more out of control.

We shall be subjected to this kind of thing increasingly in the Common Market, and it is worrying that increasing amounts of taxpayers' money are being absorbed in these industries. If the I.R.C. is to intervene and make taxpayers' money available to these mergers in interest free loans and building grants, public accountability and, preferably, public control as well, should be increased.

There has been reference to size of monopolies and to what should be the size at which the Commission should intervene. The old definition of a near-monopoly in the 1948 Act which set up the Monopolies Commission was of a situation in which one firm commanded more than 30 per cent. of the market. We have heard references to £5 million and £10 million asset sizes. I can think of a whole number of firms which have never undergone this kind of searching investigation.

I would refer my hon. Friends on the Front Bench to National Car Parks Limited, a company which has busied itself over the past 10 years acquiring key city centre sites, the value of which was created by the community, but the profits from which go to this company. If the Government are looking for a first case to be referred to the new Commission, I hope that it will be this firm. Wherever one goes in London or any of our big cities, it is National Car Parks that one sees taking our money and making the profit. I hope that my hon. Friend will refer to this later on.

There has been a reference to the need for efficiency audits, but I was disappointed when the Secretary of State said that it was not possible to make "general efficiency references" of private firms. But we are very keen on subjecting nationalised industries to ever-increasing numbers of investigations. I should have thought that there are large numbers of private firms which should be investigated and that those powers should be included in the Bill. I hope that, in future, some of the spotlight which has been shed on public industry will be shed on private industry as well, as the Prices and Incomes Board started to do.

I am glad that the Secretary of State referred to the dropping of the statutory control of wages. I was originally taught that the Board and the prices and incomes policy would genuinely help those who could not fight for themselves—the lower paid. The trouble is that, as the policy has worked out, it is only now that it is at last, thank goodness, crumbling, that the lower paid and those who could not fight for themselves are starting to get a fair deal.

It is easy to talk of statutory wages control, but there has not been half enough talk about statutory control of the other forms of income. I am thinking of incomes like capital gains, dividend increases and rents.

I hope that on both sides of the House we have heard the death-knell of proposals for the statutory control of wages. It has not worked successfully in the past and it is unfair to expect workers to have some sort of statutory control over their share of the national income while—even members of the Government will admit this—it has always been difficult to exert control over dividends, interest payments and all the other important sources of income for the upper-class sections of the community.

If we are to have a body examining wage structures, then I hope that it will examine some of the other salary and income structures, because the only sort of incomes policy in which I am interested is one which at last alters the present inequalities in the distribution of wealth.

I am glad that under Clause 13 there are powers—we were told that these powers already existed—to regulate prices. However, I understand that these powers will be used only in certain cases and where prices are obviously derived from a firm taking advantage of its market power. The trouble is that if prices are regulated only on that basis, then there is a danger that that excuse will be used when back benchers, and particularly those on this side of the House, press for price controls to be introduced.

I cannot help thinking that the original prices and incomes policy—indeed, any such policy that now exists, if anybody still believes in it—would have been seen to have worked more fairly if we could have effectively taken control of prices. I only hope that, with the new powers which my right hon. Friend has to investigate and regulate prices after the Commission has reported, we will see a determined effort to control and regulate many of the key prices.

We failed to control certain key prices, such as the price of bread, beer and milk, to name only three. I hope that we will not fail to regulate key prices in future. There is no doubt that if one speaks to people about this when canvassing for local elections, and so on, the inability to control key prices is uppermost in people's minds when they speak of the rising cost of living and the Government having failed to regulate important price increases.

I have written to several Government Departments about certain price increases. Considering some of the mournful and lugubrious excuses that I have been given, I hope that the new Commission will not present the same sort of excuses. We must show that we mean business. If we do not, we will get this continuing inflationary spiral in which inflation is the only safety valve in the pressure conflict in society between managements and unions.

Inflation may form a neat safety valve if other countries inflate at the same rate. Unfortunately, some countries inflate faster than others. The lower-paid and those on fixed incomes—in other words, those who cannot fight for themselves—lose out every time.

We have heard from hon. Gentlemen opposite about what they now call "civilised capitalism". I do not believe that capitalism can be civilised, because I do not believe in capitalism. We have also heard much about humanising the structure of industry and the increasing size which industry is striving to reach.

I hope that if industry gets bigger and we are to have a Commission which will investigate examples of it getting bigger, this new Commission, whether it be part of the P.I.B. or the old Monopolies Commission, will adopt a more human approach to these matters, and will accept that people's lives, jobs and futures are at stake. I trust that that will be the guiding light of the new Commission on Industry and Manpower.