Annual Report

Clause 3 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21 June 1977.

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Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Lambeth Norwood 12:00, 21 June 1977

I beg to move Amendment No. 13, in page 4, line 41, leave out paragraph (a) and insert— '(a) during the month of November in the year 1977 and the month of February, May, August and November in each subsequent year, a report on the performance of the Commission's functions during the three months ending with the preceding month;'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this amendment we may discuss Amendment No. 63, in page 5, line 7 after 'subsection', insert 'within two weeks of its receipt'.

Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Lambeth Norwood

As the bingo callers say, 13 is lucky for some, and I hope that Amendment No. 13 will lead to a spirit of amity, conciliation and expedition in our proceedings.

In Committee, the Opposition and some of my hon. Friends wanted the reports of the Price Commission to be published quarterly. When the Bill was published we had proposed that they should be annual, but I promised to study what the Opposition said, I have done so, and I have come to the conclusion that we should revert to quarterly reports.

I should like to meet the spirit of Amendment No. 63 as well, but I cannot. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Dodsworth), whose amendment it is, asks that general reports of the Commission should be laid before the House within 14 days of their being received. The difficulty is not over the laying of the reports but over printing. It is not possible to guarantee that a general report could be printed within 14 days. How long it would take to print and therefore to make a general report available to the House would depend on the priorities at the time. At present it takes between 28 and 42 days for a general report to be printed and made available.

As for reports following investigations and examinations, the printing would be given priority and almost invariably the reports would be laid before the House within 28 days, because the House would have to have those reports in its possession to be able to take a decision on any order following the reports. I cannot promise the same priority for the general reports, which will be printed and laid before the House as soon as possible.

I hope that that disposes of the worries that might be in the hon. Gentleman's mind.

Photo of Mr Giles Shaw Mr Giles Shaw , Pudsey

I welcome you back to the Chamber, Mr. Speaker, looking so bright and cheerful.

We also welcome the arrangement that the Minister outlined for the publication of quarterly reports, a matter that we pressed in Committee. The House should be aware that with the Price Commission in its new form, as provided in the Bill, the reports will have an additional importance. The Minister stressed that the reports on investigations would be printed within 28 days. I think that he will recognise that there have been substantial delays in the provision of the general reports in so far as they have been made available to the House. This may not be a matter of printing time as much as a matter of administrative time and approving the report.

I hope that the Minister will bear in mind our anxiety that reports should be laid before the House as soon as possible. I can assure him that if the Government make such amendments in this way, a spirit of amity will prevail. We welcome the amendment and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford-shire, South-West (Mr. Dodsworth) will wish to recognise the points made by the Minister.

8.15 a.m.

Photo of Sir David Price Sir David Price , Eastleigh

I welcome the amendment. One of the most constructive parts of the work of the Price Commission has been its quarterly reports and one of the most important elements of those reports is not the detail about the number of cases investigated but the information about prices and cost trends. The Index of Retail Prices is a help, but, according to the balance of products measured, it is possible to get slight differences in indices and these can often be a problem in discovering prices changes at any given moment from the point of view of general policy or for action by firms and trade unions. The Commission's reports on trends in prices have been the most important part of its work, and I have found recent reports very useful. I hope that the Minister can assure us that this part of the quarterly reports will be continued by the new Commission.

The Minister referred to reports of investigations. He will recognise that the new Commission will be doing investigations in greater depths and with greater freedom of action since it is tied not to a specific code, but to the general critera that we have been discussing for most of the night. It is, therefore, important that particularly the early cases should be explained in detail by the Commission because there will be built up a form of case law on how the Commission interprets the pretty wide criteria in Clause 2.

I hope that the Minister will give us an undertaking that the Commission, particularly in its early reports, will give as much information as possible about how it interprets the criteria and which of those it regards as most important. The Government have ensured on earlier amendments that the Commission will have wide freedom of action. It is important that it should give reasons for its decisions, particularly in the early cases, as clearly and precisely as it can.

If it is accepted that reports on individual investigations in the quarterly reports are added to the general views of the Commission on price trends, it should produce a gradually evolving view of the importance of various criteria, and this would be very helpful to industry and trade unions and everyone involved in the implementation of this legislation. I hope that the Minister will agree that these matters will be a permanent part of future Commission reports.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Dodsworth Mr Geoffrey Dodsworth , South West Hertfordshire

I am sure that the spirit of amity that now prevails is welcome to both sides of the Chamber, even if it may be only a brief interlude.

It is a constructive advance to recognise the need for the publication of quarterly reports, especially in the light of the developing role of the Commission and the new-found duties and functions that it will carry out. My concern has been to ensure that such information is presented to Parliament at the earliest opportunity. A matter that lies at the heart of many of our discussions is that we should ensure that Parliament itself participates to the full in any of the decision-making processes that are taking place and is fully cognisant of any investigations that are in course.

I observed from the Committee reports that there was some comment about the timing of previous reports in the past. It was said that they seemed to fall foul of the proper Question Time. I notice that departmental Ministers were especially enthusiastic about the current procedures of the House. They felt more than satisfied that Parliament was fully protected by the existing procedures and did not wish to impose any further or undue burdens upon hon. Members in discussing the actions of either the Price Commission or the Department.

For that reason I felt that it would be helpful if we had a tighter timetable for the presentation of the information. It seemed that a period of 15 days was appropriate. I understand from what the Minister has said that there may be practical administrative difficulties about that. I should like to feel that any delay is maintained purely at practical administration level and does not reflect an element of political manoeuvring.

I understand that that is a difficult question to put in those terms, especially if I ask for an assurance. It is only too clear that it is difficult to differentiate on some occasions between one thing and another within a whole range of options. For example, a report may not be received in time for the 15-day period to operate. My concern is that the House has the earliest opportunity to record the information and to makes it public. If the House is well aware of what is taking place, there is in turn the opportunity of debate and referral to the information in the reports and the functions of the Commission.

I fully accept the terms of amity offered by the Minister and I am happy to accept his assurances on that basis.

Photo of Mr Richard Body Mr Richard Body , Holland with Boston

Before the spirit of amity gets completely out of control I feel that it should be recorded that the Minister of State seems to have wobbled about a great deal on this issue.

We understood at the beginning that the Bill was to include a provision for quarterly reports. When the Bill was published we found that it was to be an annual report. When my hon. Friends moved their amendment in Committee the Minister made a persuasive speech arguing against quarterly reports. One of the reasons he advanced was that we cannot draw a fair comparison between the work envisaged for the future Price Commission with the one now in existence because of the abolition of cost controls. The hon. Gentleman gave us various other reasons.

The Minister has not explained why those reasons, which seemed valid at the time, are no longer to be supported. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Price) has supported the proposal on the basis that it will help to build up a body of case law, as it were. Surely that will be done in any event. We understand that the Commission will carry out some 40 or 50 investigations every year and will publish individual reports on them. We assume that they will be published as soon as they are ready and without delay so that the firms concerned, their customers and the public generally will be acquainted as soon as can be with the opinion and judgment of the Commission. Surely that will be a body of case law, as it were, something that will be continuing almost on a weekly basis if we are to have about 40 or 50 reports a year.

Therefore I suggest that this kind of quarterly report will not be a satisfactory means of monitoring what the Price Commission is doing. I wonder whether the Minister has consulted the Chairman of the Price Commission, who we understand has now been appointed, about what will manifestly be an added burden for him. The Minister said in Committee that he disliked this idea of a quarterly report because it would add to the work and place a burden upon the shoulders of the Commission. That is obviously so. The Minister shakes his head.

Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Lambeth Norwood

Frankly, I think that the time of the House is being wasted. I have accepted what the Opposition want. I do not see much point in going over ground which is now completely otiose and in the past.

Photo of Mr Richard Body Mr Richard Body , Holland with Boston

With every respect to the Minister, that is not good enough. He gave some persuasive reasons why he could not accept this amendment previously. He gave three reasons. But he has made no effort to explain why those reasons were no longer valid. Some explanation might be forthcoming as to why he now finds it necessary to contradict himself.

The proposal will result in added work being placed on the chairman, who must be primarily responsible for the contents of any report. I should have thought that the chairman designate might have been acquainted with this further burden that was to be put upon him.

The moral that must be drawn from this vacillation is that this Bill has been ill-considered. I hope that the Minister will not shake his head over this matter. Had he worked out what the Price Commission was to do it would not be necessary to wobble about, even on this issue, and say now that a quarterly report will be available. He must know that it would be proper and right for the Price Commission to publish information, almost on a daily basis if need be, about profit margins and other material that it is important for the public, customers and himself to know in connection with its investigations and monitoring. I understood that some of this information was to be published in any event. It is not clear now whether that will still be the case. Does it mean that as a result of this new decision, whereby there will be quarterly reports, it will no longer be necessary for the Price Commission to publish that information which the Minister, in rejecting the original amendment, said would be given? It would be helpful to know whether that decision still stands or whether it will be altered as a result of the amendment now being agreed.

I hope that there will be a further explanation from the Minister of State about this matter. It is not satisfactory that he should try to introduce at this late stage a spirit of amity and pretend that he is giving something away. It may well be that he is taking something away and not adding anything, if the Price Commission does not publish this information on a regular basis, as we understood would be done.

Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Lambeth Norwood

The House wanted two assurances. The first was on price trends. The Commission's reports already publish details of price trends. The contents of reports are a matter for the Commission, but it is likely that it will continue to provide that information. The second point—the interpretation of criteria—is more difficult as we are jealous to preserve the independence of the Commission. It is not for my right hon. Friend or the Government to dictate to the Commission the contents and the nature of its reports and judgments. It is important to preserve independence of judgment. The Commission may prefer to let reports on individual investigations speak for themselves.

I undertake—I think that this is consistent with the independence of the Commission—to convey to the newly-appointed chairman-designate the wish of the House that as much information as possible about the interpretation of criteria should be given in the quarterly reports as well as the individual reports. There is then no clash between the Commission's independence and the views of my Department.

Photo of Sir David Price Sir David Price , Eastleigh

This is particularly important in the early months, because the régime and the ground rules are being changed. It is to everyone's advantage for the Price Commission to give as much information as it can without prejudicing its freedom of action.

Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Lambeth Norwood

There is some diffidence—perhaps exaggerated—about the way the Bill will work in the early months. I do not want to pretend to dictate to the Commission how it should conduct its affairs. I undertake to convey this debate to the chairman and hope that he takes proper note of it.

Amendment agreed to.