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Price Control

Volume 932: debated on Tuesday 24 May 1977

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4.25 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give powers to local authorities to investigate price rises.
The measures proposed in the Bill are meant to make a contribution to the fight against inflation in a practical way. It aims to provide trading standards officers with powers to conduct on-the-spot investigations into unnecessary price rises.

At the present time consumer protection departments are the responsibility of county councils. It is the county councils which carry out consumer protection and promotion activities. It is the consumer officers who provide a service in preshopping information. They provide information about household durables to enable a shopper to exercise an informed choice before buying, so as to prevent complaints arising afterwards.

Another function is to provide advice to shoppers in the form of price guidelines, in other words, in providing a limited list of comparable prices for foodstuffs and toiletries which are available in the area in several retail outlets. Here again the shopper can exercise a choice in deciding where the best value for money can be obtained.

So far so good, and so much for the present functions of consumer officers. But what they cannot do is investigate on-the-spot allegations of unnecessary price rises on individual items. All that consumer protection staff can do when a complainant believes that there has been an unnecessary price rise is to tell the complainant that they can do nothing about it because within the present rules every such price rise is permissible. But there is all the difference in the world between a "permissible" price rise and a "justifiable" price rise. This is where the battle against inflation takes a more positive approach.

It is the difference—a very important difference—between "permissible" and "justifiable" that my Bill seeks to iron out. Let us face it; it is totally unconvincing to tell a housewife that provided a trader stays within the limits of the Price Code he is justified in increasing the price of the article sold. Too often housewives are fed up and feel conned, and this explanation is no longer acceptable to them. I doubt whether there is an hon. Member in this House who has not had the experience of finding an individual item, and a domestically produced item at that, increased in price at all-too-frequent intervals, and who has not rightly felt that at a time of voluntary price restraint the increase is unjustified.

Recently a research organisation sent out a researcher to buy 25 items that go into the shopping basket each week. Each of the items cost 25p. The next day they were put on a table to be photographed, but before the photographer arrived the researcher went out again to check in the self-same shop and found that five of the 25 items had gone up in price by between 3½p and 5½p each. Within 24 hours these amounts had been slapped on five of the articles.

My Bill asks that this kind of increase in prices be investigated at a local level to see whether the additional cost is really necessary. The need exists, and it is crying to be dealt with.

Local consumer protection departments cannot usurp to themselves the functions, at the staff level, of the Price Commission, let alone carry out the kind of investigation called for under Clause 10 of the Price Commission Bill. I believe that a local officer can and should be allowed to investigate a price rise which has caused such local disquiet. I have little doubt that if the investigation proved the rise to be unnecessary the resulting publicity would not only be unfavourable to the trader but would act as a formidable example to others.

I anticipate two objections to the Bill. The first is the kind of objection normally expressed by the Opposition on these occasions—namely, that people are quite capable of taking care of themselves and do not need professional staff to do the job for them. I attach no weight at all to that objection.

There is a second objection, to which I was first inclined to attach greater weight and which I label the "central Government objection". In April last year I asked the Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, to extend the functions of trading standards officers in the way I now suggest in my Bill. In his reply he said that he had not received many representations from such officers to increase their work load and that in any case it would detract from other consumer promotional work.

Despite a full work load, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities has made representations to the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection to seek these powers so that this vital gap in the services offered to the public may be closed. They know that there is no work more immediate today than to win the battle against inflation. Those officers must be allowed to exercise their professional judgment in deciding by which activities they can best obtain value for money for the public.

The officers to whom I have spoken over a period of many months are dissatisfied because of the restrictions imposed on what they see as a job of top priority. One such county council consumer protection department submitted over 4,000 complaints to the Price Commission in the last year because the department had no power to deal with those complaints, but to date no information on those matters has been given by the Price Commission.

Nobody denies that the consumer protection officers already have their work cut out, but it is never enough to sit back and leave to central Government the fight against rising prices. The Price Commission is remote—remote geographically and also in terms of time. It does not provide individual satisfaction and it takes months before a shopper's complaint becomes a statistic possibly justifying action industry-wide. A housewife wants to see action, she wants to see it straight away, and she wants to see it taken up immediately with the trader who has given her cause for complaint in the first place. It is little consolation to know that her complaint will become a stastitic and that somewhere, some day, something might come of it.

My Bill does not ask for a new enforcement agency, because the agency already exists as does the staff, who are willing and able to do the job.

Hon. Members in all parts of the House are sensitive to the fact that as we enter talks on future pay policy there is a chain that links shop stewards' committees to the shopper's purse and to the shop counter. It is the modest intention of my Bill to strive to strengthen one of the links in the chain.

I commend the Bill to the House.

4.35 p.m.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mrs. Boothroyd) has suggested that we should be allowed to bring in a Bill that would provide her with a new rod with which to beat the backs of the small shopkeeper. It is yet another assault on the wretched self-employed.

I wonder whether the hon. Lady has cleared her proposals with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), the Liberal spokesman on local government. Perhaps she is working without the benefit of the Lib-Lab pact because no Liberal spokesmen or Government Minister is present for this debate. I suspect that her Bill is doomed to failure because she has not secured the support of the Lib-Lab axis.

I ask the House to consider her words, and particularly her comments about "unjustifiable" price increases and "unnecessary" price increases. Some official in the county council will be able to decide what is a justifiable and what is not a justifiable price increase—a power that I should be a little hesitant to give. How that official is to know the extent to which a commodity that is being sold has gained in price, or indeed to know what has happened, is a mystery to me.

There is the whole set-up of the Price Commission, to which I am also opposed, which can consider these matters in general. If the Bill becomes law, we shall have a situation in which the Price Commission may say "Yes", but in which the local officer may say "No" to a price rise—or it may be the other way round, in that the local officer may say "Very well", whereas the Price Commission may say "No". There will be the most dreadful confusion. It is surely not the right way to operate a system of price control to have two tiers of officers, all with powers to say what price rises are justifiable and what are not. Indeed, the whole concept of justifiability is a matter to which I shall return, but certainly it is obnoxious to anybody who understands the function played by prices in an economy.

There is a nasty aside in a little piece contributed by the hon. Lady to the house magazine published by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Thomas)—a publication that is of great advantage to those who oppose Ten-Minute Bills, but not to those who propose them. The hon. Lady said in that article
"adverse publicity for the trader would have its effect and set an example".
A local consumer protection department may stick a notice on a shop saying "The prices in this shop are too high". Are notices to be posted up saying that one trader is charging too much and that another trader is not? Is that the hon. Lady's idea? Does she intend to indemnify departments against legal action—action which I certainly would take if such a notice went up on my shop, if I owned one, which I do not? Is that the kind of thing at which the hon. Lady is aiming, because if it is I certainly do not regard it as a right way to approach the matter?

I warn the hon. Lady if she is seeking to put the blame for all price rises on traders and producers. I suppose she feels that the price of pork is due to excessive profits made by the pig industry. If she were an officer in the county council, would she put up a notice in shops saying "Keep out of this shop. The price of pork is too high here."? I warn the hon. Lady that shops would soon run out of pork, and, indeed, out of all sorts of other commodities, if she tried to make out the case that price rises were due to greedy traders.

The trouble with the hon. Lady is that she cannot tell the difference between pig-meat and a scapegoat. She is trying to find somebody on whom she can pin the blame for the pernicious inflation that is the product of the Labour Government's economic policies. Indeed, she may make a small contribution to inflation, because, by appointing a number of extra officials to go round snooping in the shops, she would have to pay them out of public funds. Since we do not possess those public funds, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have to print the money, and prices will rise. That is the cause of inflation—not the fact that traders are putting up prices.

The hon. Lady has already had her turn. She must now sit back and listen.

Prices are not going up, the value of our currency is going down because of the economic policies pursued by a Labour Government. It is no good blaming the trader. If the hon. Lady wants to bring in a Bill she should draft a measure that will carry forward the attack against inflation. Her Bill should require the Government to have an election immediately, so that we may get this Government out.

The Government are the cause of inflation, not the traders. It is wrong for the hon. Lady to go around looking for scapegoats for price rises in the shops and to pretend that price control will somehow affect the rate of inflation.

I draw attention to the latest figures for the retail price index, which show that the index rose 2·6 per cent. in April, making a total rise over the year of 17·5 per cent. The Press release accompanying the figures stated:
"The rise in the index in April was due to increases in local rates, rents and water charges; to increases in the price of cigarettes, petrol and motor vehicle licences arising from the March 1977 Budget changes in indirect taxation; to increases in domestic fuel and home maintenance costs; and to increases in the prices of many foods and other goods, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables."

Division No. 144]

AYES

[4.42 p.m.

Abse, LeoCowans, HarryFletcher, Ted (Darlington)
Anderson, DonaldCraigen, Jim (Maryhill)Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Armstrong, ErnestCrawshaw, RichardForrester, John
Atkinson, NormanCronin, JohnFowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)
Bagier, Gordon A. T.Crowther, Stan (Rotherham)Garrett, John (Norwich S)
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood)Davidson, ArthurGeorge, Bruce
Bates, AlfDavies, Bryan (Enfield N)Gilbert, Dr John
Beith, A. J.Davies, Denzil (Llanelli)Ginsburg, David
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony WedgwoodDavies, Ifor (Gower)Golding, John
Bidwell, SydneyDean, Joseph (Leeds West)Gould, Bryan
Blenkinsop, ArthurDempsey, JamesGourlay, Harry
Booth, Rt Hon AlbertDoig, PeterGraham, Ted
Boothroyd, Miss BettyDormand, J. D.Grant, George (Morpeth)
Bottomley, Rt Hon ArthurDunnett, JackGrocott, Bruce
Bray, Or JeremyDunwoody, Mrs GwynethHamilton, James (Bothwell)
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)Eadie, AlexHardy, Peter
Brown, Ronald (Hackney S)Edge, GeoffHarper, Joseph
Buchan, NormanEdwards, Robert (Wolv SE)Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)
Buchanan, RichardEllis, John (Brigg & Scun)Hatton, Frank
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)Ellis, Tom (Wrexham)Henderson, Douglas
Campbell, IanEnglish, MichaelHooley, Frank
Cant, R. B.Evans, Fred (Caerphilly)Horam, John
Carmichael, NeilEvans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey)
Cartwright, JohnEvans, loan (Aberdare)Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Clemitson, IvorEwing, Harry (Stirling)Hughes, Roy (Newport)
Cohen, StanleyFaulds, AndrewHunter, Adam
Coleman, DonaldFernyhough, Rt Hon E.Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill)
Conlan, BernardFitch, Alan (Wigan)Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)
Corbett, RobinFlannery, MartinJanner, Greville

These, incidentally, do not come from the Common Market.

The cause of the price rises is the Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer's increases in indirect taxes and vehicle licences, and everything which adds to the cost of bureaucracy. All that the hon. Lady seeks is to increase bureaucracy, thereby increasing the cost of living and making inflation worse.

I suggest that we should not seek to make merely cosmetic changes to deal with inflation, whether by way of the hon. Lady's little Bill, or stage 3, or the Price Commission Bill. We should all acknowledge that it is our responsibility to pursue an economic policy that does not result in inflation. The longer that we continue even to give leave to bring in Bills of this sort, the longer we shall hoodwink the public into believing that is is somebody else's fault and that there is a scapegoat for inflation. The scapegoat who should be blamed is the Chancellor of the Excheqeuer and his right hon. Friends, who are entirely responsible for the wicked inflation gripping this nation, and the hon. Lady knows it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 ( Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at the commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 192, Noes 179.

Jeger, Mrs LenaNewens, StanleyThomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)O'Halloran, MichaelThorne, Stan (Preston South)
John, BrynmorOrme, Rt Hon StanleyThorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
Johnson, James (Hull West)Palmer, ArthurTierney, Sydney
Johnson, Walter (Derby S)Pardoe, JohnTinn, James
Jones, Alec (Rhondda)Park, GeorgeTorney, Tom
Jones, Dan (Burnley)Pavitt, LaurieTuck, Raphael
Kelley, RichardPerry, ErnestUrwin, T. W.
Kerr, RussellPhipps, Dr ColinWainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Kilroy-Silk, RobertRadice, GilesWainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Kinnock, NellRees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Lambie, DavidReid, GeorgeWalker, Terry (Kingswood)
Lamborn, HarryRichardson, Miss JoWard, Michael
Lamond, JamesRoberts, Albert (Normanton)Watkins, David
Latham, Arthur (Paddington)Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)Watkinson, John
Lee, JohnRobinson, GeoffreyWatt, Hamish
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)Roderick, CaerwynWelsh, Andrew
Lipton, MarcusRooker, J. W.White, Frank R. (Bury)
Loyden, EddieRoper, JohnWhite, James (Pollok)
Lyons, Edward (Bradford W)Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)Whitehead, Phillip
Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. DicksonRoss, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)Whitlock, William
McCartney, HughSandelson, NevilleWigley, Dafydd
McDonald, Dr OonaghSedgemore, BrianWilliams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
McElhone FrankSelby, HarryWilliams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
MacKenzie, GregorShaw, Arnold (Ilford South)Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Madden, MaxSheldon, Rt Hon RobertWilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Magee, BryanShort, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE)Wise, Mrs Audrey
Mallalieu, J. P. WSilkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)Woodall, Alec
Marks, KennethSillars, JamesWoof, Robert
Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)Silverman, JuliusWrigglesworth, Ian
Mellish, Rt Hon RobertSkinner, DennisYoung, David (Bolton E)
Mendelson, JohnSpearing, Nigel
Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N)Spriggs, LeslieTELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Mitchell, Austin Vernon (Grimsby)Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)Mr. George Rodgers and
Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)Stoddart, DavidMr. Mike Thomas.
Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)Strauss, Rt Hon G. R.
Mulley, Rt Hon FrederickTaylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)

NOES

Adley, RobertFarr, JohnLawrence, Ivan
Aitken, JonathanFinsberg, GeoffreyLawson, Nigel
Alison, MichaelFisher, Sir NigelLe Marchant, Spencer
Amery, Rt Hon JulianFookes, Miss JanetLester, Jim (Beeston)
Arnold, TomForman, NigelLloyd, Ian
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd)Luce, Richard
Awdry, DanielFraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St)McAdden, Sir Stephen
Baker, KennethFry, PeterMacfarlane, Neil
Banks, RobertGardner, Edward (S Fylde)MacGregor, John
Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham)Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian (Chesham)Mackay, Andrew James
Benyon, W.Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife)Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham)
Berry, Hon AnthonyGodber, Rt Hon JosephMcNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury)
Bitten, JohnGoodhart, PhilipMadel, David
Blaker, PeterGoodhew, VictorMarshall, Michael (Arundel)
Boscawen, Hon RobertGoodlad, AlastairMarten, Nell
Bottomley, PeterGow, Ian (Eastbourne)Mather, Carol
Braine, Sir BernardGower, Sir Raymond (Barry)Maude, Angus
Brocklebank-Fowler, C.Gray, HamishMaxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Brooke, PeterGrimond, Rt Hon J.Mayhew, Patrick
Brotherton, MichaelGrist, IanMiller, Hal (Bromsgrove)
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)Hail, Sir JohnMills, Peter
Buchanan-Smith, AlickHamilton, Michael (Salisbury)Miscampbell, Norman
Buck, AntonyHannam, JohnMitchell, David (Basingstoke)
Budgen, NickHarrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye)Molyneaux, James
Bulmer, EsmondHarvie Anderson, Rt Hon MissMontgomery, Fergus
Burden, F. A.Hastings, StephenMore, Jasper (Ludlow)
Butler, Adam (Bosworth)Hayhoe, BarneyMorgan, Geraint
Carlisle, MarkHicks RobertMorris, Michael (Northampton S)
Channon, PaulHordern, PeterMorrison, Charles (Devizes)
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)Howe, Rt Hon Sir GeoffreyMorrison, Hon Peter (Chester)
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)Neave, Airey
Clegg WalterHunt, David (Wirral)Nelson, Anthony
Cockcroft, JohnHurd, DouglasNeubert, Michael
Cooke, Robert (Bristol W)Hutchison, Michael ClarkNolt, John
Cope, JohnJenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd & W'df'd)Onslow, Cranley
Costain, A. P.Jessel, TobyOsborn, John
Crouch, DavidJones, Arthur (Daventry)Page, John (Harrow West)
Davies, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford)Jopling, MichaelPage, Richard (Workington)
Dean, Paul (N Somerset)Joseph, Rt hon Sir KeithParkinson, Cecil
Dodsworth, GeoffreyKellett-Bowman, Mrs ElainePattie, Geoffrey
Eden, Rt Hon Sir JohnKershaw, AnthonyPeyton, Rt Hon John
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)King, Tom (Bridgwater)Prior, Rt Hon James
Elliott, Sir WilliamKnight, Mrs JillPym, Rt Hon Francis
Eyre, ReginaldKnox, DavidRaison, Timothy
Fairbairn, NicholasLamont, NormanRathbone, Tim
Fairgrieve, Russell Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)

Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)Sinclair, Sir GeorgeWalker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek
Rhodes James, R.Smith, Timothy John (Ashfield)Wall, Patrick
Rhys Williams, Sir BrandonSpence, JohnWalters, Dennis
Ridsdale, JulianSpicer, Michael (S Worcester)Warren, Kenneth
Rifkind, MalcolmStainton, KeithWeatherill, Bernard
Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)Stanbrook, IvorWhitelaw, Rt Hon William
Roberts, Wyn (Conway)Stanley, JohnWiggin, Jerry
Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks)Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)Winterton, Nicholas
Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)Wood, Rt Hon Richard
Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)Tapsell, PeterYoung, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Sainsbury, TimTemple-Morris, Peter
St. John-Stevas, NormanThatcher, Rt Hon MargaretTELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)Trotter, NevilleMr. Nicholas Ridley and
Shepherd, ColinVaughan, Dr GerardMr. Michael Latham.
Silvester, FredWakeham, John
Sims, RogerWalder, David (Clitheroe)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Miss Betty Boothroyd, Mr. Donald Anderson, Mr. Jack Ashley, Mr. Arthur Bottomley, Mrs. Joyce Butler, Mr. Stanley Cohen, Mrs. Lena Jeger, Dr. M. S. Miller, Miss Jo Richardson and Mr. Mike Thomas.

Price Control

Miss Betty Boothroyd accordingly presented a Bill to give powers to local authorities to investigate price rises: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 15th July and to be printed. [Bill 125.]