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Price Commission (Cost)

Volume 958: debated on Monday 20 November 1978

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asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what is the estimated cost of the Price Commission during the year ending 5th April 1979; and what proposals he has for reducing that cost.

The 1978–79 estimate provision is approximately £7·3 million. Expenditure on the commission is kept to the minimum compatible with the need for it to discharge its functions efficiently.

Bearing in mind that retail prices have more than doubled since this Administration came into office, is the Secretary of State satisfied that the Price Commission is worth £7·3 million a year? Is he aware that many Opposition Members believe that the public interest would best be served by the total abolition of the Price Commission?

I am perfectly well aware of that. My answer to the question is: yes, I am satisfied that it is necessary and that it is doing a good job.

Is the Secretary of State satisfied with the mechanisms for monitoring the prices of overseas manufactures which may be dumped in the United Kingdom? Is he aware of reports today that Italian-manufactured washing machines may be threatening the expansion of companies in Wales and thereby losing jobs?

In considering these matters, will the Secretary of State arrange to have published a list of those occasions on which the Tory Opposition have either opposed or failed to support any legislation to control prices?

The Conservative Opposition's record is well known. They opposed the Price Commission Bill. They have opposed every initiative that we have taken on this subject. Their entire role has been to complain on the basis of the selective use of figures. I believe that the opinion polls demonstrate that the public have rumbled them.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Price Commission's claim to have prevented about £121 million of price increases during its first year amounts to a reduction in the retail price index of about 0·1 per cent? If one deducts from that the millions of pounds that it has cost industry and the cost of the commission itself, that figure is probably 0·075 per cent. How can he claim that such a derisory figure is of any significance to consumers or that the whole paraphernalia of the Price Commission and the difficulties and uncertainties that are caused to industry warrant that kind of expenditure?

The hon. Lady has confirmed what we all suspected on the Second Reading of the Price Commission Bill—that she does not understand the purpose of the Price Commission. The commission is intended to operate on a selective basis. Its role is to prevent unnecessary price increases, not to act as an across-the-board check. It has carried out that role with great distinction. I believe that it should go on, if necessary changing its powers by making them more effective rather than reducing them.