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 Edmund Dell Mr Edmund Dell , Birkenhead 12:00 am, 8th April 1970

I am sure that my right hon. Friend did not make a mistake. Clause 26 deals with general references which both the Monopolies Commission and the National Board for Prices and Incomes can currently undertake. The C.I.M. will be able to undertake them, but there will be no powers following these reports. In other words, they will be for the information of the public and possible further legislation.

Reference has been made, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson), to the C.B.I. My hon. Friend was afraid that we were doing too much to conciliate the C.B.I. At any rate, I think that he will agree that we have not had much success. Frankly, I did not expect very much success, given its initial attitude.

In considering any competition legislation in this country, one bears in mind, as I think right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite would bear in mind, the attitude of the predecessor of the C.B.I. to the Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1956. The C.B.I. has not even welcomed the fact that we are excluding smaller businesses from scope, except where they are in a monopoly position or in an oligopolistic position. The C.B.I. mainly represents the larger firms. But even the C.B.I. accepts that there is a new concept, of which the Government are entitled to take note, which is called near monopoly. In other words, it, too, thinks that it is necessary to go outside the current monopoly criterion.

Nevertheless, despite the disagreements which we have had with the C.B.I., it is nonsense to suggest, as it seems to have been suggesting, that we have taken no notice of the views that it has expressed to us. On the contrary, we have, in redefining the public interest in Clause 31, introduced, as one of the conditions of which the Commission must take note in making its studies, new projects and new investment. We have introduced powers, to which my right hon. Friend specifically referred, in relation to prices. There will be a limitation on the use of our powers, following a report, concerning prices and the period, unlike current legislation, in respect of which those prices can be controlled. There is also what we are doing about procedure.

The response of the C.B.I. to these discussions and what we have done to attempt to meet its views where we could, consistent with the basic philosophy of this legislation, has been to advise its members to cease giving us 28 days prior notification—a completely irresponsible response.

I understand that there will be briefing for hon. Members from the C.B.I. which will no doubt be useful in Committee. It will be interesting to observe whether these briefs will be used in the interests of weakening the legislation or strengthening competition.

Why, then, have the Opposition decided to oppose the Bill? The right hon. Member for Mitcham seemed to suggest that, following a report of the Commission, the Government would have powers at large. He thought that we could throw out the recommendations of the Commission and do what we like. This is not the case. On the contrary, the use of powers is more strictly controlled under this legislation than under the existing monopolies legislation. The use of powers has to be relevant to the findings regarding the public interest.

Another reason which the right hon. Gentleman gave was what he judged to be the wrong power of control over prices which exists in the Bill, there being no power to control wage settlements. I was not quite sure what point he was arguing from time to time. At one time he seemed to be arguing that price control would reduce investment. At another time he seemed to be arguing that price control had failed. I do not know on which of those legs he will come down.

The interesting thing on which the right hon. Gentleman mainly did not appear to be able to make up his mind was whether there should be any power of statutory control over prices in the case of market power situations. Under the existing monopolies and mergers legislation, there is a power of control over prices in the conditions governed by that legislation where it is found that they are against the public interest.

Here, given the increase in scope, we have power over prices where it is found that there is action against the public interest and where there is unreasonable use of market power. Even the C.B.I. has not said to us that in non-competitive conditions, in what it calls monopoly or near-monopoly conditions, there should not be a power of control over prices. Of course there should be. It is a necessary safeguard to the public interest in these cases.

Then we come to the major objection, and that is that we do not include in the Bill any power of control over the trade unions' market power, or trade union restrictive practices. As my right hon. Friend said, there is a power of investigation and publicity given in Clause 26, which deals with general references. It would be ridiculous to introduce into a Bill of this sort, even if it were sensible at all, dealing as it does with commercial and industrial situations, a power of control over restrictive practices by trade unions. The Opposition themselves do not suggest it. What they suggest in "Fair Deal at Work" is that there should be reports by their productivity board, and they say that these reports will be highly influential. There is no reason to suppose that the reports made by the commission in this respect will be any less influential.

The Opposition have never suggested that these two aspects of market power,