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Clause 2—(Power To Make Defence Regulations For Controlling Prices)

Volume 414: debated on Monday 15 October 1945

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I beg to move, in page 2, line 33, leave out from beginning, to end of line 37, and insert:

"His Majesty may by Order in Council make such."
I ask permission to have included in the discussion on this Amendment the Amendment relating to page 2, line 40, to leave out from "description," to "for" in line 41. I hope this will be for the convenience of the Committee.

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. Would it be for the convenience of the Committee if the next three Amendments were discussed along with the present one?

We do not intend to move the second Amendment standing in my name—in page 2, line 38, after "for" to insert "so."

The Amendment which I have the honour to move, and the associated Amendment, seek to effect that these Regulations shall be made by ordinary Order in Council and not under Defence Regulations. They would exclude some of the powers which have already been discussed from the ambit of this Bill if they were made by plain Orders in Council instead of by Defence Regulations. The particular part of the Clause to which I wish to draw attention consists of the last words, which we ask the Government to omit. They are these:
"Whether or not such regulations are necessary or expedient for the purposes specified in the said subsection (1)."
What are the purposes specified in the said subsection? They are
"to secure at fair prices a sufficiency of those essential to the wellbeing of the community or their equitable distribution; or to facilitate the readjustment of industry and commerce to the requirements of the community in time of peace: or to assist the relief of suffering and the restoration and distribution of essential supplies and services in any part of H.M.'s Dominions or in foreign countries that axe in grave distress as the result of war."
These are pretty wide objectives to state in Clause 1, which the Government inherit from the Coalition Government. In Clause 2, by including the words which I have quoted, the Government are saying quite bluntly, "We wish to control prices and goods of any description, or charges for services of any description, for purposes other than to secure sufficient at fair prices, other than to facilitate the readjustment of industry and commerce, and other than to relieve suffering and famine abroad." But what can those objectives be? What are they? All we know so far is that they are not the objects set out under Clause 1; they are others, but about what they are—complete silence. As in so much connected with this Bill, we are not told what those objects are.

In the Clause as now drafted, it would be possible to control prices, or for that matter wages—because wages are frequently charges for service—for any reason at all at the unfettered will of the Government. It would be possible; it is not germane to the arument to say that it would be improbable, or that it would be unlikely, or would not happen. It would be possible to discriminate against one firm or another. Indeed, the Home Secretary in his speech on the Second Reading used these words, and I think the Lord President of the Council, who was reading from the same brief, repeated them. The Home Secretary said:
"to differentiate price control according to type and quality by fixing maximum prices for particular products and particular businesses."—[Official Report, 9th October, 1945, Vol. 414, c. 122.]
If those words mean anything, they mean that the Government here seek power to go down into particular commodities and also to go down into particular firms making the same commodity. The words expressly mean that powers are taken not only to control the variety of products but also to control the product of one company or firm as against the same product made by another.

What words are those? I am sorry I was not here when the right hon. Gentleman began.

I am sorry the hon. Gentleman was not here. The words I was referring to are:

"Whether or not such regulations are necessary or expedient for the purposes specified in the said sub-section (1)."

Where does he say that it is stated that the words he wishes to leave out give the Government power not merely to control goods of any description but to discriminate amongst those goods between one firm and another?

In that connection I was merely quoting the words which the Home Secretary and the Lord President of the Council used.

No, I was quoting from the Home Secretary's speech on the Second Reading.

Those words mean that it will be possible to say to a partner in a firm, "We do not like your face, your private life or your politics, and so we are going to control the price which you may charge for your products while leaving your competitors free." It would be possible under these powers to say at what fee a barrister's brief should be marked, and I wonder what the Lord Chancellor and the President of the Board of Trade would have thought of those powers earlier in their lives. Of course, I am, on purpose, using far-fetched illustrations, but they are to show how far the powers could go, not to show how far they necessarily will go. The Home Secretary's defence of Clause 2 in his speech on the Second Reading, which was of a highly perfunctory character, was not relevant to the subject of the present Amendment at all. He did not touch upon this point. He defended the present powers on the ground that previously they had powers only over manufactures as a class or types of trade as a class. He went on to use, among other words, those I have quoted. I am not suggesting that the powers will be used, or unfairly used, but only that they are there and will allow discrimination to take place. It seems to me that the powers which the Home Secretary has, to deal with specific goods, would still exist under this Clause even if the words which we ask the Government to delete were omitted.

6.30 p.m.

The Home Secretary also took the opportunity, when referring to this Clause, to mention restrictive practices, but he followed the practice himself by restricting the discussion—as his colleagues in the Government always do—on this point, to the restrictive practice of holding up prices, and did not mention those designed to withhold labour or to restrict the quality of a man's hand or brain. All these restrictive practices may be—although they by no means always are—wrong and anti-social. Where they are wrong and anti-social is where they fail to carry out one of the objectives set down in Clause 1—where they fail to secure sufficient of the essentials of life for the community at fair prices and equitable distribution.

So far we see that quite unnecessary "overcoat powers" are being taken, because restrictive practices are wrong when they defeat the object of Clause 1. The powers, as drafted, would, in effect, enable the Home Secretary to keep prices up. He can say, for example, that the Minister of Supply, in one of his State-owned factories, cannot compete with the privately-owned business, a contingency which will certainly arise before very long. He could say "You shall not sell taps or gutter at such and such a price and undercut the Ministry of Supply."

Again, hon. Members may think that I am taking a far-fetched illustration. I am doing nothing of the kind; I am only saying what could be done under the powers of this Clause, and it is open to Major Milner to call be to Order if I am outside the Clause. The Government could keep prices up, and I want to show hon. Members that this is not a fanciful illustration. I assert that the powers exist, which at this moment are being used, for the purpose of keeping up prices which would otherwise fall, and I challenge the Government to deny that. There is no answer.

The Government do not know what I am referring to. That is exactly the point made by some hon. Members. Will the Home Secretary, for example, look into the matter of the price of bricks, one of the components of building? I am not saying at this moment that the fixing of minimum prices of bricks is vicious, or not done for a good reason; I am only saying that these powers are now being used by the Government. It is quite easy to follow these Regulations, but the Government themselves do not know. I think there is a good reason why there should be a minimum price for bricks, and I say that the Home Secretary can keep up prices. I know how distasteful these things may be when pointed out, but I have a difficult task to perform, and I will do it with politeness. The Home Secretary can keep prices up. That will give hon. Members an idea how wide, how almost limitless, the powers which he seeks under the Clause can be with these words in.

Again, the Home Secretary could, although I am not suggesting for a moment that he would, do very great damage to the power of collective bargaining of trade unions over the prices charged for services which are, in some cases, wages. It is absolutely no defence of this Clause to think, or believe, as I do, that he will do nothing of the kind. It is no use to be content with the words which the Lord President of the Council so adroitly used when before the House on the Second Reading. He said they were taking powers, but that it did not follow that they would use them and that hon. Members on this side of the House could rely on the Labour Government conducting themselves with good sense and discretion. To accept that kind of argument is to reduce the proceedings of this House to a farce. The argument runs: "We have a mandate and under that mandate we are entitled to take any power, but you need not worry; we shall use our power with discretion." All dis- cussion in the Committee stage of a Bill, if we accept that argument, would be a mere waste of time, and there are many hon. Members, new to the House, who regard the work of this afternoon as a waste of time—most of it wasted by the Government.

The point broadly raised by this Clause, as now drafted, is that "overcoat powers" should be handed to the Government to do what they think fit. I notice the Home Secretary is referring to his notes, but when I say "overcoat" I am referring to this sort of words:
"whether or not such Regulations are necessary or expedient for the purposes specified in the said Sub-section (1)?"
We could not have a more comprehensive Clause. What the Government want is a sort of atomic blunderbuss which they can fire into the air whenever they like, but the only thing that is certain is that the slugs will end up in the face, and probably other parts of the person, of His Majesty's subjects, however privileged the reasons which prompt it. These are the very things which we in this House, and in this Committee, are here to prevent. We are here to safeguard, as far as possible and as far as necessary, while giving the Government powers for which they ask, that they shall govern without permitting licence and unlimited powers being granted to the Executive over the person and property of the individual, in just the same way as in the early days of our Constitution the faithful Commons protected the citizens from unlimited and indiscriminate interference by the Crown. [Hon. Members: "By the Tories."] The Chairman will probably say that it is going a little beyond the Clause if we get back to Magna Charta.

The Amendment, as put down, has no other meaning, and I hope the Government will accept it. The powers are very wide, indeed, and will do all—and probably more than all—that is likely to be necessary, even if the Bill has a five-years' life. The Government, as their life progresses, will have need of friends; I am not sure they do not need a few now. I am giving them an opportunity this evening of seeing that sound constitutional practice is as much their care as that of hon. Members. The Lord President of the Council has often, in my hear- ing, made eloquent appeals to the Government when he thought that something they were doing did not accord with those principles. In making his stand for those principles, I know he was sincere, and I ask him and the Home Secretary to go over this first and very important Bill that the Government have presented to Parliament, knowing that they hold those views.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to me in an aside, and said that he did not wish to accept from me any ruling as to irrelevancy. I do not venture to suggest any such ruling, and certainly would not expect him to accept one if I did. All the same, I thought he might have been interested in convincing this Committee that his arguments were really relevant to the Amendments, and my difficulty was to show how they were. The right hon. Gentleman has made a number of criticisms of the Clause. What basis he has for those criticisms I will examine in a moment, but I would like to say first of all—and I would ask him to correct me if I am mistaken—that none of the criticisms which formed most of his speech would be in any way affected if either of these Amendments was carried.

The point is, that where the Government are seeking power to go out of a class and into individual types of goods, or individual manufactures, we, on this side of the House, are not contesting that point if it is with the objectives set out in Clause 1. But when Clause 2 contains completely limitless powers, then we think the Government are going too far.

I dare say that what the right hon. Gentleman has now said has some bearing on what I said, but I must confess that I am unable to see what it is. He made a number of criticisms of the Clause. It is quite true that the Amendments that he proposes would make some difference to the Clause's provisions, but the general effect of the Clause would not be in any way different if we carried either or both of the Amendments which he moved. The powers in the Clause would still be wide powers. Whatever powers the Government have, to interfere with this or that kind of goods, would still be there. The argument that you ought not to give a Government powers merely on their undertaking not to abuse them would still be good. All the right hon. Member would effect by his Amendments, if carried, would be that, instead of doing something by Defence Regulations, it would be done by Order in Council, and, secondly, the powers would be exercisable only for the purposes of Clause 1 of the principal Act, and not independently of these purposes. It seems to me, therefore, that the main part of his speech was directed to criticism of the Clause which his Amendments would not affect.

6.45 p.m.

Let us look at the criticism he made. Is he really advancing it as a principle of legislation that you must never give Government powers which bad Governments could abuse? There are not any such powers. There is not any way of putting general powers into such words that a Government could use them only in suitable cases and could not use them in unsuitable cases. If that had been a proper principle of legislation, the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, which was operated throughout the war, and without which the war could not have been properly prosecuted, could never have been passed. It gave the Government during the war the widest possible powers. Any one of the Regulations could have been abused. Many hon. Members think that some of them were, but that was never regarded as being a good reason for withholding the powers. We had to be content, as the right hon. Member for Aldershot and his hon. Friends will have to be content, to watch carefully and closely the exercise of those powers by the Government and if the powers are abused to bring to the notice of the House each abuse as and when it occurs. We cannot keep the Government without powers merely because Governments can abuse powers, or because the form of words gives them the opportunity to abuse powers.

What was it that the right hon. Gentleman thought the Government might do and ought not to be allowed to do? He said they would have power to maintain prices. That is so. The whole of this legislation is to give the Government powers which, if the Government did not exercise them, would be exercised only by private interests. Monopolies make these arrangements, cartels make them; the effect of collective bargaining can be curtailed by arrangements between employers. All sorts of arrangements about price maintenance are possible and have been carried out. The whole purpose of this legislation is to give the Government counter powers so that in this period the community may be protected.

The only other point I want to deal with is the suggestion which the right hon. Gentleman made that there is something in this Clause which would give the Government power to discriminate between individuals or firms offering the same description of services or manufacturing the same description of goods. I ventured to ask the right hon. Gentleman where he found such a power in the Clause and he replied by quoting a speech by the Minister. The whole point of his argument was that Ministers' speeches have nothing to do with it, and that what matters is the wording in the Bill. I ask him again where there is in the Clause any power to discriminate between persons? The words are quite clear:
"As appear to him to be necessary or expedient for controlling the prices to be charged for goods of any description or the charges to be made for services of any description."
I should have thought that was conclusive. What the Clause requires is quite clear; it is that the Government should class the description of goods or services the price of or charge for which it wishes to control, and then control the price of or charge for goods or services of that description. There is no discrimination between the goods of one manufacturer and those of another. As long as they are goods of the same description, the Regulation will cover all of them.

Does the Home Secretary agree with the interpretation of this Clause now being given by the hon. Member?

I shall be interested in the answer, although I still think that the answer would be irrelevant to this discussion. As has been said time and again by hon. Members opposite, what matters is not what the Minister says. It is not for the Minister to interpret Acts of Parliament. Therefore, it is quite irrelevant for the right hon. Gentleman to ask whether the Home Secretary agrees with my interpretation. I have given my interpretation. It may be quite wrong. What we have to look at is the words in the Bill and not rely on anybody's interpretation. If words have to be interpreted, they will be interpreted in the courts. It seems to me to be plain, and if the Government do not intend the results to be as I have said, they ought to look at the wording again. I think the meaning of the words is that the Government can control the price of goods and the charges for services according to their description. If the Government do not mean that, they ought to change the wording, but until they change it, the right hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton) has no ground for complaint because the things he fears are not to be found in the Clause.

I am in some difficulty about this Clause, with or without the Amendment. The Clause gives almost unlimited powers. The last two lines of Sub-section (1) of the Clause which the Amendment seeks to remove give unlimited powers for unlimited purposes. I understand that is the point to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton) was directing his argument when he pleaded, not that the Clause should be dispensed with, but that the unlimited powers in the last two lines should be dispensed with. If one takes the view that governments are inevitably and necessarily good, there is a tremendous argument for giving them all power and for not restricting them by the last two lines or any other lines of the Clause. There are people who hold that governments are inevitably good, and one government introduced a Bill in the Reichstag some years ago to give the government all powers in all directions for a period of four years. If anybody starts with that assumption, that may be the logical conclusion of the assumption; but if one starts with my assumption, that government is not a good thing but a necessary evil only to be tolerated as the price of avoiding still worse evils, then one must look carefully at the powers one is asked to give and one must bear in mind, first, that governments always ask for more powers than they need, and, secondly, that they always exercise more powers than they get. I have seen things happen under the Defence Regulations—I have seen things happen to me under those Regulations—which I am perfectly certain were never within the contemplation of the House at the time the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act was passed. I am certain that experience can be matched by many other hon. Members and by many institutions in the country.

The last two lines of the Sub-section remind me of the South Sea Bubble. It will be remembered that in the early part of the 18th century a wave of speculation spread over the country and all kinds of projects were launched for all sorts of purposes, but there was one which attracted me when I read about it, and that was a company for the exploitation of a purpose too secret to be disclosed. All I ask—and I ask it as an innocent inquirer and not as an opponent of the Government—is this. I am prepared to give them all the powers at a time of crisis which they can convince me are genuinely necessary for the good of the people of this country, but I am not prepared to give them a bit more. They have got to demonstrate their case. When they say:
"whether or not such Regulations are necessary or expedient for the purposes specified in the said Sub-section (1)",
there can only be one implication, that they have in mind purposes other than the purposes specified in Sub-section (1). If they do not mean that, then English does not mean anything. All I ask, as a simple and humble inquirer of the fountain of truth, the Front Bench, is this: what are the other purposes that they have in mind? Will they please tell us what they are? Will they justify the request for powers to deal with them? In short, will they take us into their confidence and not ask us to give them a blank cheque? But there is only one end of blank cheques to the Government, and that is bankruptcy for the rest of us. Therefore, I ask the Home Secretary to tell us what are those purposes and try to convince us that the very wide powers in Clause 2, in addition to those in Clause 11, are necessary for the service of these purposes which so far have been concealed from the Committee.

I am quite sure that the right hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton), when he alluded to my ingenuousness last Tuesday, was speaking with perfect sincerity, and he has put me under a very severe temptation to-night. If I were as ingenuous as he thinks I am, I would accept the first of these Amendments. For what does it do? It enables Regulations to be made for five years instead of limiting the period during which they can be made to the period between now and 24th February next. That, of course, is a temptation which, after the last speech, I am quite sure the Committee will realise, is a very difficult one for me to resist. But I realise that was not by any means the intention of the right hon. Gentleman, and therefore, I give him the assurance that, whatever alterations we may make in this Clause, we will not make the first Amendment that he wants.

7 p.m.

I gather that the first objection is one of nomenclature. The Opposition rather feels that it would be a good thing if we could find some other name than Defence Regulations for these Regulations that will be made under the Bill as it is drafted. I admit that that is very attractive. We ourselves would, in fact, like to do it but it involves us in some difficulties in having at certain periods of time two separate sets of Regulations called by different names. As my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council said, when he wound up the Debate last Tuesday, that is a point that we have in mind and we will see if it is possible to meet it without undue administrative difficulties.

When we come to the other points, which were the main objections of the right hon. Member for Aldershot that induced him to put down these Amendments, we are handicapped very much at present, as the Coalition Government were, in that for one class or description of goods we can fix only one price. Take a class of goods obviously as variable in quality and range as women's frocks. It is absurd to be in the position where one can only fix one maximum price for women's frocks. We desire in similar matters, where there are obvious grades that can reasonably be distinguished, to have the power to fix maximum prices for different grades for the same kind of commodity. I am sure that everyone in the Committee would say that it would be reasonable. If we do not do that, we probably fix a maximum price that is too low for some purposes and much too high for other purposes. There is, of course, a tendency for the maximum price to become also in some cases, where it ought not to become, the minimum price. That is the kind of thing that I gather the Committee would wish us to avoid.

With regard to the last three lines which have caused a great deal of the argument and give rise I think to the main difference between the right hon. Gentleman and the Government, those words are put in there to deal with the prospect of inflation that might be caused by excessive prices being charged for non-essential goods at a time when, obviously, it as admitted there is a great pent-up spending power in the nation. Certain things are controlled in price, but inflation might well be caused by excessive spending on some of the non-essential goods. I have had brought to my notice, as an illustration of the way in which prices have risen unexpectedly in certain ways, the recent increase in fees—and the justifiable increase in many cases—in secondary schools. There is a great pent-up spending power at the moment in the working classes and, as in the last war, one of the ways in which they have endeavoured to use that spending power has been in getting a better standard of education for their children. Public schools have more clients than usual, the schools below them in social standard have also more pupils, and this has been used by some proprietors of schools unnecessarily to increase fees and take advantage of the present markets. I am not suggesting that this clause would be used to control school fees, but I give it as an example of the way in which the most extraordinary things rise in price, when spending is restricted over a certain area and then tends to flow into some other channel quite unexpectedly.

Since the right hon. Gentleman has given an example of a case in which it will not be used, can he give an example of a case in which it will be used?

No, Sir, and I say frankly that the ingenuity of people who want to make money quickly is so great that I never attempt to keep pace with it myself, and I carefully avoid their company.

Does the right hon. Gentleman include, in the category of those who want to make money quickly, those public schools which, in order to make both ends meet, have to put up fees to meet food costs and so on?

No, Sir, not those, but there are some others. I was careful not to make any general accusation, but the example I chose was one that was well justified. We feel that the words to which the right hon. Gentleman objects give us the power for which we ask. I am sensible that there is misgiving in the Committee, as was very well expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown), that the words may be, in fact, too wide and might be used for purposes other than those I have mentioned to the Committee. I agree that the Committee is entitled to feel that this Clause when it is passed shall not go beyond what the Government want to do. I have given the reasons why I cannot accept the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment, but I will undertake between now and the Report stage of the Bill to have this Clause very carefully examined to see that we get the powers we want, and, if possible, that we get them in terms that shall be unmistakable. Any Amendments to secure that, if they are necessary, shall be placed on; the Paper so that hon. Members shall have an opportunity of studying them before the next stage of the Bill.

I am sure that the Committee will be relieved to hear that at last some compunction has forced its way into the steel armour of the right hon. Gentleman and that he is about to reconsider this curious Clause. We in this Committee are all anxious to help and not to delay any further than is necessary the proceedings of the Committee. We shall look with gleeful anticipation to see what form the second thoughts of the right hon. Gentleman take. I hope that his reconsideration of this matter will not proceed on the lines of some of the arguments that he has already addressed to the Committee. I would ask him this question, and it is one which I would like him to have prominently before him when reconsidering this matter. What does he want to do under this Clause in its present or its amended form that he cannot at present do under the Prices of Goods Act?

I gather that point but I would point out to the right hon. Gentleman that the present legislation—the Prices of Goods Act—does enable him to go into immense detail. I have before me the Goods and Services (Prices Control) Order dealing with domestic pottery, and, taking it at random, I find that there are 20 different pie-dishes mentioned, each in four columns and different prices for each. There seems to be no reason against it. When I look at the one on wool yarns, they are all meticulously described in the Order and the tradesman, who has to master the immense complexities and particularisation of all these Orders, has no reason to agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Government are deficient in power to make a complete and minute schedule of prices. We shall look forward to this. I would not like to deceive the right hon. Gentleman or the Committee, but the Clause in its present form will never do unless we abandon altogether the control of the House of Commons over legislation. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) shakes his head but I heard the argument which he addressed to us, and I beg him and the Committee to look at the implications of what he said. He said, and I agree with him, that it would be impossible to frame legislation which a bad Government could not abuse. That is probably true, but to carry that argument to the extent to which the hon. Member pushed it, would be to abandon all control of Parliament over legislation.

How far does the right hon. Gentleman suggest I did that? All I said was that because power could be abused, was not an argument in itself for withholding it.

I do not think that that puts the position as I would put it to the Committee. A bad Executive can abuse any powers. I am not suggesting that right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench at this early stage of their career possess that turpitude of character that would be proper if they were to abuse their powers. I am not doing that, but I do say that it is the duty of the House, whether sitting as the House or in Committee, to make it as difficult as possible for Governments to abuse the legislative powers with which we entrust them, and it is on that basis that we should examine the amended version of the Clause now before us. I can say that there are many of us on this side of the Committee, and probably many anxious minds on the benches behind the right hon. Gentleman, who will recall the dramatic reminder given by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Brown) about the Parliament that voted complete power to its Government for five years. I wish the right hon. Gentleman every success in his reconsideration of this difficult matter. We view the Government's difficulties with sympathy, but we do want to know, and if they will only be frank with us and tell us why they want these powers, we shall not make any trouble. In view of what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move, in page 2, line 43, to leave out Subsection (2).

This Amendment raises a very short point, which I am sure the Home Secretary will consider at the same time as he is considering the proposed Amendment to Sub-section (1). Sub-section (2) would appear unnecessary if you retain power to make Orders under Defence Regulations. This is rather, in part, consequential upon the Amendment moved by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton), and I ask the Home Secretary to consider this and the next Amendment—in page 3, line 1, to leave out Sub-section (3)—at the same time as he is considering that to Sub-section (1).

7.15 p.m.

Ingenuousness is now beginning to settle on the other side of the Committee. It is necessary for us to have Sub-section (2). Of course, some of the penal provisions in the Acts to which reference has been made are quite inadequate for some of the offences that might be committed, and it may be the desire to impose a minimum fine at least equal to the profit resulting from the commission of the offence. I recognise that the Amendment to leave out Sub-section (3) is largely consequential upon the Amendment which has just been withdrawn, and I will undertake that it will be considered with the previous Amendments. I cannot accept the Amendment now before the Committee.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.