In view of the implication in the Department's recent release, will the right hon. Gentleman, when he next meets the chairman, suggest to him the merging of the Price Commission and the Office of Fair Trading? If the right hon. Gentleman has that in mind, can he give us some form of time scale for it?
For almost a year I have been saying that I favour the amalgamation of the powers of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and those of the Price Commission. The Office of Fair Trading is, I think, a slightly different issue. There may be a case for amalgamating that too. But the Conservative Government, who set it up, believed that the Office of Fair Trading ought to act as prosecutor in such matters, if I may speak metaphorically and loosely, and that the Monopolies Commission ought to act as a court. The two things therefore had to be divided. When we consider the amalgamation of price and competition institutions, I think we shall have to bear that fact in mind.
Will my right hon. Friend tell the Chairman of the Price Commission that many low-paid workers such as firemen and farm workers are beginning to get a bit fed up with being treated as the scapegoats in the fight against inflation? As prices are being allowed to soar while wages are held back, is it not about time that the Price Commission immediately imposed a rigid 12-month rule and a rigid percentage limit on price increases in the same way as limits are imposed on wage increases?
The responsibility for not applying what my hon. Friend calls a rigid 12-month rule on price increases is not the Price Commission's; it is mine. The reason why I could not recommend that to my colleagues in the Cabinet or support it is that to apply such a policy arbitrarily, universally and invariably would put some companies out of business and would cause an unemployment problem even greater than the one we have at the moment. But, notwithstanding that, I share my hon. Friend's view that we must have as big a time scale as possible between one price increase and another. I think that in some ways we are making progress. For instance, the major brewers have not increased a single price for five months. That is almost an all-time record.
When the Secretary of State next meets the Chairman of the Price Commission, will he ask him to take into account the fact that the British Rail price increases have already been deferred one week, and will he ask him to suggest that those price increases should be deferred until the investigation is completed in view of the representations which have been received from transport users?
The Price Commission, if I understand the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question aright, cannot freeze the price of British Rail tickets while it investigates, because British Rail is subject to what is called the safeguards provision. The safeguards provision resulted from a combination of pressures from the Opposition parties and the CBI, and the blame had better be directed to them.
I think I can say without prejudicing the issue that, without underwriting every sentence in his question, I share my hon. Friend's concern about the position in footwear retailing. Had I not had that concern, I should not have referred the issue to the Price Corn-mission. We are now only some weeks away from the end of the statutory period when that report has to be produced. Like my hon. Friend, I look forward to seeing what it concludes, and I promise him that if its conclusions warrant it we shall take speedy action.