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Commons Chamber

Volume 961: debated on Monday 22 January 1979

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House Of Commons

Monday 22 January 1979

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Prices And Consumer Protection

Price Commission

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection when he intends next to meet the chairman of the Price Commission.

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection when he expects to meet the chairman of the Price Commission.

The chairman of the Price Commission and I meet frequently. I shall be having an informal meeting with the Commission on Wednesday.

When the Secretary of State next meets the chairman, will he let him into the secret that the proposed new powers for the Commission are intended to control the unions by bankrupting companies and causing men to be laid off?

I do not think that I could offer that opinion with any degree of credibility. The chairman, unlike the hon. Gentleman, knows what the Price Commission Act says. It does not allow the situation that the hon. Gentleman has described.

Is it not a piece of sheer hypocrisy for the Tories and the nationalists to shed crocodile tears about rising prices when they voted against increased powers for the Price Commission and in favour of a further devaluation of the green pound? Can my right hon. Friend confirm reports that the Government are ready to introduce a Bill to freeze prices? We shall then see whether the Opposition parties support us in the battle against inflation or are more concerned with supporting their friends in big business who are exploiting the present legislation by raising prices to safeguard their profits.

My hon. Friend is right in both particulars. Not only are the Opposition trying to justify their past errors, but they are trying to prepare themselves for voting against tougher prices legislation in the weeks that lie ahead. We propose to press on with that legislation and to see how the various Opposition parties react.

Does not the Secretary of State think it a trifle absurd that he will soon be asking for new powers for the Price Commission, bearing in mind that he is not prepared to use his existing powers on prices in regard to the road hauliers? When he is prepared to discriminate in that way, would it not be more frank and honest simply to hand over management of the Price Commission to the picket lines?

I think that the House, and I hope the country, will note that the only occasion when the Opposition have managed to say something in support of the Price Commission was when they thought that by doing so they would embarrass the Government and damage the trade union movement. However, if the hon. Gentleman believes that we should have made the order concerning road haulage, I hope that he will support us in the Lobby over the Bill concerning safeguards. One of the reasons why it was not practical to make the order was that the road haulage industry was safeguarded. I propose to remove the safeguards.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he does not need much help in attempts to embarrass the Government? He is doing a pretty good job himself. Is he also aware that he may be sure that the Conservative Opposition will not behave as his party behaved in 1974?

I have never expected or wanted the Opposition to behave as the Labour Party does. The Labour Party will continue to improve the existing processes for holding down prices and, sooner or later, the Opposition have to decide whether they will help us with that or hinder us in it.

Inflation

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what is the cumulative increase in the rate of inflation since February 1974.

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what is the cumulative increase in inflation since February 1974.

11.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what is the cumulative increase in inflation since February 1974.

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what is the cumulative increase in inflation since February 1974.

18.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what has been the cumulative increase in inflation since February 1974.

19.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what has been the cumulative rate of inflation since February 1974.

There has been no cumulative increase in the rate of inflation since February 1974. In that period the rate of inflation fell from 13·2 per cent. to 8·4 per cent.

Order. I propose to call first the hon. Members whose Questions are being answered together and then to give a run to hon. Members on the Government side.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how he intends to explain away to the nation's housewives the fact that the value of their 1974 pound is now less than 50p?

I am delighted to say that the Opposition are giving the Government an opportunity to discuss that on Thursday. One of the things concerning inflation over the past five years that I shall then describe is our inheritance of February 1974 and the fact that in the past five years we have brought inflation down to 5 per cent. lower than the figure we inherited when we came to power. I propose to suggest on Thursday ways in which the Opposition can help us in our continuing campaign and to see whether they respond to those suggestions.

Does not this doubling of prices indicate that the effect of the Price Commission on prices has been minimal, and would it not be more honest, and, perhaps, more helpful to the country, to abandon the Price Commission now and, if there is a role for investigating monopolies, to strengthen the Monopolies Commission as a quid pro quo?

As the hon. Gentleman implies, the Price Commission has two functions. One concerns the sectors where there is less than perfect competition; the other is to hold down specific price increases. I share his view that the Price Commission does not possess sufficient powers to enable it to hold down prices where that is justified, which is why I propose to bring in a Bill to make that possible.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the cumulative increase since February 1974 now totals 100·8 per cent.? Will he now accept that figure? Does he realise the effect that that disgraceful rise has had on groups like the disabled, in particular the blind, whose fixed allowances have been eroded seriously, causing misery and hardship to many?

The figure that the hon. Gentleman hoped to elicit from my answer is the appropriate figure for giving in answer to a later question by the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Knox). Since the hon. Member for Leek put down the right question, I prefer to give him the right answer rather than answer the question that the hon. Gentleman thought he was asking.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me, with his usual refreshing candour, where in the Labour Party's manifesto of February 1974 a pledge to the British people that a Labour Government would more than double prices in five years?

That is a typical question from the hon. Gentleman. What we promised to do in that manifesto was to bring inflation under control, and that we have clearly done. I repeat, and propose to go on repeating in the next three, six or nine months, that we have done it with very little help from the Opposition.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that food prices have gone up by 108 per cent. since the Government came to power? What percentage is due to the common agricultural policy, and what to the devaluation of the pound?

I think that the increase in prices would have been about 10 per cent. less had it not been for the CAP. While I do not regard that as massive, it is clearly a figure that we could well have done without. It is because of the inadequacy of the CAP that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is making successful attempts to limit price increases on commodities in surplus. Again, he has done that with no assistance from the Opposition. An example on which the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) might comment when she has recovered from her snort was the damage which the Opposition parties inflicted on the Government in respect of the green pound. By their behaviour on that occasion, as on others, the Opposition have rendered the situation more difficult rather than better.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the important thing about inflation is the rate at which it is changing? Does he agree that in February 1974 the trend of inflation was upwards? It was high and positive, whereas at the present time the trend is fairly horizontal, and therefore the situation has improved enormously compared with February 1974.

I should have thought that even the less numerate members of the Opposition would have acknowledged the statistics, because in February 1974 inflation was over 13 per cent., and rising, whereas now it is 8 per cent. and more or less static. Not only does my hon. Friend make the point that the important thing is the trend, but so did the Opposition a year and a half ago. When the retail price index was rising month by month, that was an important indication to the Opposition. Now that it has become stable in the last nine months, it has ceased to mean anything to them.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if wages rise by 15 per cent. it does not follow that prices will rise by 15 per cent. as well? Perhaps he could convey that to some of his Cabinet colleagues. Will he also accept that other factors go into the making up of the rate of inflation, such as the terms of trade, the state of our currency reserves, and so on? Does he accept that more emphasis must be placed on controlling prices and, if necessary, if we cannot transform the Common Market, on getting out of it?

I do not agree with that final suggestion, but I agree with almost everything else that my hon. Friend has said. Many factors determine prices. Wages alone are not the only determinant, although they may well be the major one. If we had overall earnings increases of 15 per cent., the prospects of further improving the inflation rate would be very severely handicapped, and while I share my hon. Friend's view that wages are not the only cause, I hope that he shares mine that they are an important cause and have to be planned in the way that the other elements in prices are planned.

Whilst any other accusations made against the right hon. Gentleman and the Government about inflation may be correct, one accusation that is incorrect is that the right hon. Gentleman has never made an accurate forecast. Does he remember forecasting with absolute accuracy in Cambridge, on 27th May 1972, that

"We shall be an expensive Government"?
Do not the people now know exactly what he meant, as they have seen prices double and the purchasing power of the pound cut to below half? The only forecast—

Order. We must not develop arguments now. We must confine ourselves to questions.

Will the Secretary of State accept that the only forecast that will put people out of their misery is when we can expect a General Election?

I plead guilty to the hon. Lady's initial charge. I regularly make speeches in which I say that our public expenditure plans—for housing, hospitals, education, and so on—cost more than Conservative plans, so that in that sense we are an expensive Government. I shall send her some of the texts in which I have made that point, which is always preceded by the phrase

"Let weak-minded Conservatives make what they want of that point."

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Financial Times has conducted a comparative survey in 60 capital cities and found that prices in London compare very favourably with those abroad? Can he explain how the Opposition, if they believe in no Government interference in wages and prices, can blame the Government on these matters?

I have seen many indications of price prospects and price achievements and have been heartened by most of them. The Government have brought inflaton down to the level of about 8 per cent., and I think there is a general acknowledgement that we have made progress along the lines that we hoped. Proof of that he in The Daily Telegraph, which, in the end, had to publish its shopping clock, even though it showed an improvement in the price level, and even more in The Sun, which gave up its shopping clock altogether.

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what is the current year-on-year rate of inflation.

14.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection by how much the retail price index has risen since February 1974.

The retail price index rose by 8·4 per cent. in the 12 months to December 1978, and by 100·8 per cent. between February 1974 and December 1978.

As, unfortunately, it appears that the rate of inflation is now starting to rise again—

I said "unfortunately". The housewives in my constituency have to pay the bills, like everyone else. As, unfortunately, it appears that the rate of inflation is now starting to rise again, can the Secretary of State tell us what the Treasury estimates are for the rate by the end of this year?

The Treasury estimates were published in the document known as "the Bray forecast", which was submitted to the House in November last year. I tried to give a rather more accurate forecast, which is possible over a shorter period, when I said that for the next three or four months there would be a slight, though not substantial, increase in the inflation rate. Instead of it fluctuating around 8 per cent., I thought that it would probably fluctuate around 9 per cent.

The right hon. Gentleman usually blames this 100 per cent. inflation on the increase in the money supply. Is he seriously suggesting that the abandonment of the Conservative Government's incomes policy and the consequent wage and salary explosion during the first 16 months of this Government had nothing to do with inflation? If so, why did the Government introduce an incomes policy in 1975?

I am not suggesting that for a moment, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman, unlike his less objective colleagues, refers to the difficulties during the first year or 18 months of the Labour Government. Those were difficulties which we inherited. I do not believe that the Conservative Party's incomes policy—which has been disowned not only by me but by the Conservative Party—was a help in these matters. It contained the threshold agreements, and threshold agreements are institutionalised inflation in pay bargaining. I therefore think that the Conservatives handicapped the Government rather than helping them during their first year.

Will my hon. Friend give an indication of the implications for inflation if the going rate in the present wage round were to become 15, 20 or 25 per cent. respectively? Will the Secretary of State publish in the Official Report some calculations based on the same assumptions as those of the public expenditure White Paper and can he say whether, at the end of such a free-for-all, anyone will be better off respective to anyone else?

I very much agree with the implication of my hon. Friend's question, which is that if we had a wages round which produced increased earnings of 20 or 25 per cent., that would not result in people having more purchasing power, but rather in their having less. On the other hand, I do not want to produce the figures that he suggests, even though his general thesis is right. I do not believe that we shall get a 15 or 20 per cent. earnings round, nor do I believe that producing figures based on those percentages would encourage people to understand that the interests of this country are in getting a wages round substantially lower than that, thus improving their purchasing power in real terms.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the current rising rate of inflation is still too high by comparison with our major trading competitors? It is three times as high as that of Germany and twice as high as that of Japan. Can he say what the prospects are for an improvement on that situation?

Of course I agree, and the Government have always said that our objective has to be to get our rate of inflation down to the level of our most successful competitors. We have a long way to go before we achieve that—a very long way indeed. The prospects depend on a number of elements. One is that the Government maintain their present financial policies of stringency in the money supply and the public sector borrowing requirement. It also depends, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, on a reasonable pay round. Nobody can be sure about the outcome of that second factor. What we can be sure of is that the whole country has a vested interest in producing that result, and the Government will go on working very hard for that result.

Will the Minister tell the House how much of the Government's gross overspending during the past five years—as reflected by the public sector borrowing requirement which has been financed by printing the money—has been responsible for the doubling of prices during that period?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be amused when I tell him—though he ought to know—that that sort of calculation is not possible. What I hope will amuse him less is that the Government's record of financial stringency is a great deal more respectable than that of the Government that he supported. I am always astonished to discover how Conservative Members can advocate one policy in Opposition and carry out another when they are in Government.

Motor Spares

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection whether he has received the report from the Price Commission on the price of motor spares.

The Under-Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection
(Mr. Robert Maclennan)

No, Sir. My right hon. Friend's direction does not require the Commission to present its report to him before 31 March 1979.

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that many motor manufacturers as well as component makers make spare parts? Can he confirm that they will be equally consulted with the other manufacturers in this inquiry?

The Price Commission was required by the direction issued on 10 August to examine the prices, costs and margins in the manufacture and distribution of parts for motor cars. I can therefore answer the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question in the affirmative.

Pay Settlements

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what guidance he has given the Price Commission on the use of criteria for investigating pay settlements.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that his attempts to use the Price Commission as a way of exercising pay restraint are really very hard to bear when we find that the salaries and wages of Price Commission part-time members have doubled from £1,716 in 1976 to £3,600 today?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman heard, but during supplementary questions on an earlier Question I was blamed for using—or was it not using?—the Price Commission as an instrument of wage restraint. The Price Commission is not, and cannot be, an instrument of wage restraint. The measure which incorporated it does not allow it and the present membership of the Price Commission would not be prepared to act in that way.

Will my right hon. Friend expand on the answer that he gave earlier to show why he did not use his existing powers in the road haulage dispute? Will he explain why he did not use them, because this is widely taken to mean that the Government are giving the green light to a large settlement?

The report on the road haulage industry was prepared and submitted to me long before the present dispute—indeed before the present claim—and was unrelated to it. There were two things that convinced me that the report could not be implemented. One was that it could concern only a small sector of the industry—about 10 per cent. The second was that a substantial number of companies, even within that 10 per cent., would not have been affected by the order because they were protected by safeguards. Therefore I decided on Thursday not to make the order. My intention was to announce that this morning. When ACAS announced that it was calling the parties to the dispute together on Sunday morning I thought it right to give them that information before the meeting.

Further to the Minister's recent answer, surely he is aware that that report had been published for some time. Why did he allow the road haulage employers to have their hands tied behind their backs for so many weeks, with a threat of a freeze in prices, thus causing the present dispute? They could not fairly negotiate, or open negotiations. Why did he wait until the strike had started before he made his declaration?

There are some Opposition Members who say that I gave in too early and some who say that I should have given in earlier. The Government did not give in at all. The Government have a statutory duty to consult the parties which a report of that sort covers. Those consultations were going on into last week. Had I made a decision on the order without consulting the Transport and General Workers' Union, or the Road Haulage Association, the House would have complained that I had rushed into it, and it would have been right to complain. As it is, I acted towards that report as I act towards every other, and my decision was based on the same sort of criteria as influence me on other occasions.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that both he and the Government had every kind of power that they required over the prices of the BBC and of the road haulage industry, and that they did not lack any powers to use price controls in those two instances? Why have the Government failed to control the wage settlement in both those cases? Why does the Secretary of State think that further powers for the Price Commission, and for the Government in the matter of price controls, will have any more effect than those powers have had?

Before the road haulage dispute began I was advised that any order I made limiting prices in the road haulage industry could apply to only 10 per cent. of the industry because of the industry's nature. Most of the companies were too small and too diverse for an order to be appropriate. Therefore, to say that we have power to influence prices in the industry, let alone wages, is, I think, a travesty.

With regard to the BBC, I think that, technically, having put down an order to increase the licence fee, the Government could have reversed or revoked that order. But I have no doubt that the House would rightly have complained that this was a case of politicans trying to control the policies of the BBC—some-thing that we have tried to avoid since the BBC was incorporated.

The hon. Gentleman has to do better than that to explain why he signed an early-day motion calling for the abolition of safeguards and now announces that he will vote in the other direction.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that ad hoc decisions of this kind in individual cases have a damaging effect in the pay round? If it were thought that the implementation of any new prices legislation would be subject to ad hoc pressure, would not that be profoundly damaging to the net result? Is that not itself a case for the establishment of a relativities board?

My hon. Friend's question goes very wide in several directions. I say to him at once that I see some virtues—and I tried to describe them last Friday—in some sort of body which makes judgments, at least about public sector pay, because I find it difficult to know how else public sector pay can be determined.

On the new Price Commission powers, the position is that the Commission will continue to be governed by the criteria laid down in the Act. The only change in that procedure is that the Government can behave in a way which is less directly against the wishes of companies which intend to put up prices than is the Price Commission recommendation. The Government can be more tender towards companies than the Price Commission proposes. I believe, therefore, that the charge of ad hoc-ery with regard to industry is totally misconceived. The criteria still apply, and those criteria support and protect the industrial interests.

Competition And Restriction Of Charges

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection if he is satisfied that the need to safeguard the interests of users of goods and services by promoting competition between suppliers or, where competition must be restricted or cannot be promoted (either because certain suppliers control a substantial share of the relevant market or for any other reason), by restricting prices and charges is being taken into due account by the Price Commission.

But is the Minister sure that the consumer is sufficiently safeguarded against price rises in the public monopoly sector? For example, can consumers face with equanimity the miners' pay claim of a 40 per cent. increase or must they resign themselves to sharp rises in electricity prices?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the powers of the Price Commission relate to the public sector just as to the private sector. To the extent that the Commission is able to intervene to prevent unjustified price increases in the private sector, similar considerations apply in the public sector. It did so notably in the case of British Rail's application most recently, and in a previous case it particularly recommended that the fact that competition was lacking in the South-East in respect to commuters' fares should be taken into account in the next proposed fare increase. That recommendation by the Commission in the public sector was borne in mind by British Rail in making its proposals recently.

On the question of the interests of users, what is the Government's view on the EEC product liability proposals?

Price Commission (Powers)

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection if, in the light of the latest figures available for the rate of inflation, he will take steps to increase the price control powers of the Price Commission.

Yes, Sir. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced on 16 January, we shall shortly introduce legislation to amend the Price Commission Act 1977 by abolishing the requirement for safeguard provisions except following sectoral examinations.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that any strengthening of the Commission's powers will be welcomed by millions of consumers? Does he agree that if the Opposition vote against these proposals they will once again be emphasising their completely hypocritical attitude? They weep tears about rising inflation, but vote against every proposal designed to curb inflation.

I very much agree. The House being of the composition that it is, I think that we shall have something of a battle before we manage to pass the Bill into law, but it is a battle well worth fighting and I believe that it is one that will find support from the people of this country, who want stronger price, legislation and will support a Government who introduce it.

As this is, according to the right hon. Gentleman, a battle well worth fighting, will he say what exactly will he the effect on the overall rate of inflation of the abolition of safeguards in the case of the Price Commission?

It was the hon. Gentleman who speaks for the Liberal Party on these matters who said on television that the Price Commission would have a significant effect on the retail price index. We have never contended that that was so. What we have said is that there are a number of sectors where price increases are not justified, and that where they are not justified they should not be allowed. What has happend over the past 18 months is that the Commission has not been able to use its discretion concerning unjustifiable price increases, and we propose to restore that discretion.

In strengthening the Price Commission's powers, will my right hon. Friend take into account that the amount of inflation generated by wage claims depends entirely on how much of those wage claims is passed on to the consumer? Will he make certain that those firms that give wage increases do not pass on in prices much more than the wage increases in order to increase their profits?

Yes, indeed. The criteria that govern the Commission's behaviour impose on it the principal duty of ensuring that companies at least attempt to meet increased costs by greater efficiency rather than automatically passing them on. To often over the past two years companies have believed that the only response to an increased cost was an increased price. I hope that we can persuade them, one way and another, that greater efficiency is one of the alternatives.

May we revert to the road haulage industry? Did the right hon. Gentleman suddenly discover yesterday that he had no power to interfere in connection with the employers, or did he know it for several weeks? If he did know it several weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) is quite right: the Secretary of State is largely responsible for the present state of affairs.

I discovered the situation that I have described during the consultative period. My last consultation with the parties took place last Tuesday. As I told the hon. Member for Welling-borough (Mr. Fry), my original intention was to do what I normally do, which is to announce my decision towards the end of the appropriate period. The appropriate period ends tomorrow, and I would have announced my decision today. But having taken the decision on Thursday I announced it earlier than I had intended in order to allow the parties to know of the situation facing the industry. I am sure that in this particular I was absolutely right to operate in the normal way. If I had treated this order differently from the way in which I have treated other orders, the hon. Gentleman and his party would have been the first to complain.

Prices (Display)

15.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection whether he intends to take further steps to require the display of prices as an aid to consumers.

Yes, Sir. My right hon. Friend intends to develop and extend the present programme of price display to cover other goods and services. I believe that both consumers and retailers benefit from clear and unambiguous price display. I am considering what sectors we should tackle when our present work on cafes and restaurants and misleading bargain offers is completed.

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that there are very strong feelings about this matter and that there is a need for the programme to be carried out as soon as possible, because people will then see that the Government have a resolve to get the matter sorted out?

The Government attach considerable importance to ending some of the misleading practices that have exacerbated housewives' irritation in the shops.

As the Minister mentioned misleading bargain offers, would he like to explain to the House why an undertaking given by the Director General of Fair Trading in respect of mail order catalogues has now been dishonoured by his right hon. Friend, or is there perhaps a kinder explanation?

In respect of my right hon. Friend's proposals on bargain offers, the Government are moving directly in line with the recommendations of the Director General of Fair Trading. So far as the order affects the mail order section of the trade, consultations have been held with that section. It is conceivable that some changes may be made in the published proposals, but the process of consultation is not yet complete.

Does my hon. Friend remember the time when we subsidised basic foodstuffs to an important extent for many people? We then required retail outlets clearly to exhibit maximum prices at which basic foods could be sold. Does my hon. Friend think that that is a good idea for establishing uniformity to prevent exploitation and making sure that people understand that their retailer is not receiving too high a price?

Certain foodstuffs are at present subject to the requirement that the maximum price be displayed. The principal reason for that requirement is to ensure that the subsidy voted by the House was passed on to the consumer. The Government have also introduced requirements that the prices of all foodstuffs shall be displayed when they are sold over the counter for consumption elsewhere. The Government's policy on the display of prices in cafes and restaurants will help to complete that circle.

With regard to my hon. Friend's suggestion that maximum prices should be more widely used than they are, there is a risk that maximum prices might be treated in some areas as minimum prices, and that would be most undesirable.

Price Increases (Prevention)

16.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection in how many cases his Department or the Price Commission has intervened to prevent or to reduce price increases during the last 12 months.

Of the 30 investigation reports published in the last 12 months, eight have resulted in price restrictions either through voluntary undertakings given to my right hon. Friend or in one case by order. In a further nine cases, companies informed the Price Commission during the investigations that certain prices would be held.

In the same period, 12 examination reports were published, four of which recommended restrictions on charges or margins. In two of these cases the companies concerned gave undertakings that they would hold their charges for varying periods. In one case my right hon. Friend made an order imposing margin controls.

One is pleased that those cases occurred, but does my hon. Friend agree that an expansion in the scale and intensity of investigation is extremely desirable? Can we expect that expansion to take place now, even though the Opposition will be flatly opposed to it?

I think that there is no doubt that the existence of the safeguards, which it is the Government's announced intention to remove, has acted as a disincentive to the Commission to investigate certain cases in which it knew that it would be impossible for it to follow up the investigation by any recommended action. In that respect I believe that what it is proposed to do will widen the effectiveness of the Commission's powers.

When pursuing these investigations, will the Government take account of the fact that jobs depend on profitable companies, that investment depends on profitable companies, and that by destroying such companies and asking taxpayers to subsidise the companies that lose money the Government are destroying the economy of the country?

I note that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are expressing opposition to a further tightening of price control. The country will notice that.

In regard to the Price Commission's capacity to take profitability into account I remind the House that it is specifically spelt out in section 2 of the Price Commission Act that profitability is one of the factors which the Price Commission must bear in mind. Even in the present situation, with its existing somewhat restricted powers, the Commission has acted responsibly in the last 18 months. The Commission, with its wider powers, may be relied upon to act equally responsibly.

Industry

British Aerospace

21.

asked the Secretary of State for Industry when he expects to meet the chairman of British Aerospace.

My right hon. Friend meets Lord Beswick frequently.

Does British Aerospace accept that its sale prospects both at home and for export would be much enhanced if it concentrated on the manufacture of quieter aircraft, which would also benefit those who live below the flight path? What is being done on this topic?

The British Aerospace Corporation takes such matters into account, and obviously must take into account the future impact of aircraft noise regulations in various parts of the world. However, I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates that the subject of noise is more appropriately one for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade.

Has my hon. Friend had an opportunity of discussing with Lord Beswick the threats raised by some of our Community partners internationally against the HS146 aircraft? What action are the Government taking to counter those threats?

I appreciate that there is concern on this issue, and I assure my hon. Friend that all these matters are being kept constantly under review in partnership with British Aerospace.

What consultations has the Minister had with the chairman of British Aerospace about the future prospects of Concorde? Does he agree that the welcome findings in the United States to the effect that this aircraft is quieter than any comparable jet should encourage us to think about the future of Concorde? What is happening in this respect?

I note the hon. Gentleman's enthusiastic comments about Concorde. I only hope that his comments will be echoed by his Conservative colleagues. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the subjects of routes, purchasing and leasing are kept under constant review.

Will my hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State for Industry when he meets Lord Beswick to discuss future collaboration with the airbus consortium? Following that, will he make a statement about this matter before long because many people want to know the details of the programme of collaboration with Europe?

I note my hon. Friend's concern. He will be pleased to know that the proposal to inject £50 million into the airbus project will be discussed by the Standing Committee during the week after next.

Employment

Retail Price Index (Weighting)

22.

asked the Secretary of State for Employment what representations he has received concerning the present system of weighting in the retail price index.

Representations have been received jointly from the Civil and Public Services Association and the Low Pay Unit asking for consideration to be given to the construction of a separate prices index for low income households for which a different system of weighting would need to be considered.

Has the Minister seen the findings of the Child Poverty Action Group showing that, as prices have more than doubled under the Labour Government, the hardship faced by the low income families has been severe? Does he agree that such families, who pay a higher than average proportion of their income on food, clothing and rent, have faced considerable hardship under a Labour Government?

I know an elephant when I see one, and it does not require a new set of statistics to prove that those on low pay and fixed incomes have suffered disproportionately, and always will, at a time of high inflation and a wages free-for-all. The sooner the Opposition recognise that fact, the better it will be for those on low incomes.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absurd to include two highly dangerous and socially destructive drugs, namely alcohol and tobacco, in calculating the retail price index? Since this has implications for taxation policy, will he consider removing those items from the calculation?

That is a matter which the Retail Price Index Advisory Committee might wish to examine. But those items form a considerable proportion of spending in many households, whether low income or otherwise.

Is the Minister aware that if the Labour Party had not destroyed the tax credit system, which was carefully planned by the Conservatives, those who are now enduring hardship, particularly old-age pensioners, would not now be suffering?

It is time that the Conservatives stopped shedding crocodile tears about those on low pay and pensioners. The Labour Government have taken a number of measures designed to help those on low incomes, and I think that they have been effective.

Given that the purpose of different forms of retail price index is to represent the actual spending of different groups, and in view of the use made of the index relating to pensioners, what response will my hon. Friend make to the representations rather than merely replying that he is receiving them?

No, I cannot say that at present, but those matters are receiving careful consideration. We shall be replying to those two organisations shortly.

Since in some areas of the country, such as Devon and Cornwall, average incomes are way below the national average and yet the cost of living on many items is higher, will the Minister use a tiny amount of computer time to arrange for cost-of-living indices to be prepared and published on a sub-regional basis?

That matter can be examined, but I wish to warn the hon. Gentleman that a further breakdown of that kind will use not merely more computer time but more Civil Service time. I hope the hon. Gentleman will bear that in mind.

Scotland

Oil Pollution

24.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will ensure that adequate reserves of equipment for dealing with oil pollution are immediately available in cases of spillage at Sullom Voe and Flotta.

Local and port authorities have accepted responsibility for oil pollution clean-up in the areas under their control so far as it lies within their capability, and I am satisfied that they have provided reasonable reserves. The Scottish Development Department is reviewing the oil spill contingency arrangements with representatives of regional and islands authorities this week and any lessons to be drawn from the recent Sullom Voe incident including the scale of provision for equipment will be discussed.

Is the Minister aware of the grave concern in Shetland over the failure of the equipment and over the time that it took to get any reserve equipment up to Shetland? Is he saying that there is still no reserve equipment available in Scotland? If so, is this not intolerable, considering the time that has elapsed since oil was first landed in Flotta and now Sullom? Will he give an undertaking that in case of oil spillage adequate reserve equipment will be available immediately in Shetland and in Orkney?

I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a blanket assurance in those categorical terms. However, discussions have been arranged for this week. We have, in general, confidence in the ability of the Shetland Islands council and the industry to work in co-operation with all Government Departments to provide the cover that he seeks.

In a system by which the major oil companies are making many millions out of oil, why, when there is difficulty, is it always the Government who have to come forward to clean up the mess? What is he doing to ensure that the oil companies put money into cleaning up the pollution which they cause?

The original Question was about what steps were being taken to prevent such spillages and what action was taken in the unfortunate event of any spillages. I am satisfied that the industry is playing its part in taking the required steps.

Is the Minister aware that there will be widespread support for the view expressed by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) that the polluter should pay? Will he bring the attention of the Sullom Voe authorities and everybody concerned in his Department to the existence of equipment manufactured by a company called Oil Recovery International in my constituency which has just been given an outstanding report by the Department of Industry's Warren Spring laboratory? Could this be brought into use very quickly, as requested by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond)?

This is not the commercial break in this programme. However, if there is a company which has equipment available and has a service to perform, it will be considered.

European Monetary System

25.

asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster whether he has received any representations from people in the Duchy of Lancaster about the European monetary system.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widespread relief that the Government have decided not to join the European monetary system at present? Is he also aware of the widespread suspicion that certain Cabinet Ministers are still keen to drag us into a system which would enable the Common Market Commissioners to dictate our economic policy to an even greater extent than the IMF did in 1976, resulting in savage cuts in public expenditure? Will my right hon. Friend assure us here and now that he is not one of those who are giving this bad advice?

What my hon. Friend regards as suspicions others might regard as reasonable hopes. It is absolutely clear, and has been said over and over again, that the Government subscribe to the fundamental purpose of the EMS and have sought to achieve the pre-conditions which would make that system durable and effective. My right hon. and hon. Friends are united in desiring to play a full part in world monetary co-operation and in European monetary co-operation in order to secure greater monetary stability which will avoid the kind of economic crises which have the unpleasant consequences that my hon. Friend has commented upon.

What is the Government's view of the French proposal, in the context of the European monetary system, of limiting the agricultural monetary compensatory arrangements?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer made clear our view on that in the debate on 14th December. To put it in a nutshell, we regard any action in relation to MCAs that adds to food prices in this country as undesirable at this time. We could not support that action.

Have the Government decided whether to take part in the European monetary co-operation fund? If so, will they introduce legislation to authorise this?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is having discussions at present with the Bank of England on the question of the depositing of reserves. The Government's general position is as I have stated it.

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify an earlier answer? Is it the position of the Government that they favour a wider international monetary system, but not the European monetary system? On the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen), do the conditions imposed by the French Government mean that it is unlikely to come into operation at all, or does he think it will come into operation at some future time?

On the first question, the hon. Member is raising false alternatives, namely, support for the EMS, and support for a wider worldwide monetary co-operation. Far from the development of European co-operation being inimical to the development of European-world co-operation, we believe that it is part of the development of world monetary co-operation.

On the French position on MCAs, some of these questions would be better addressed to the French Assembly than here. The French position is that they have not reopened what was agreed at the European Council. What they are really arguing about is how that decision should be implemented. The Government's reasons for agreeing to the European Council statement on WCAs were explained to the House on 14 December.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the dangers facing Europe are money instability and inflation, and that it is in the interests of this country and Europe that Britain becomes a full member of the EMS at the first opportunity? Does he agree that, in spite of our current difficulties, it should be our long-term aim to become a member?

I readily agree with my hon. Friend that one of the central dangers for the EEC and the world trading community is the high degree of currency instability which now exists and the uniquely high levels of inflation. I believe the two have an important relationship. A constructive development that is being recognised pretty well all over the world is that we need a greater degree of international co-operation and institutions that will give effect to that co-operation for the purpose of achieving greater monetary stability.

As far as the EMS is concerned, my hon. Friend must know that the Government took part in the negotiations and played a leading role in seeking to ensure that it achieved the kind of conditions and structures required for its permanent effective durability. So far we have not been able to meet all these criteria but the Government remain firmly pledged in principle to the concept of European monetary co-operation and the appropriate development of the EMS.

Does the Chancellor of the Duchy agree that, whether the United Kingdom does or does not join the EMS, the Government should have the overriding objective of securing the most stringent control of the money supply?

I do not know what "stringent control of the money supply" means. Perhaps that can await another Question Time or another debate. Whatever our relations with the EMS, we intend to maintain the stability of sterling to the best of our ability in relation to all the countries with whom we trade.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that on Thursday the Chancellor of the Exchequer agreed that if the French request for the phasing out of MCAs was agreed to it would cause increases in food prices in Britain? Has he seen the report in the Financial Times this morning which puts that estimate at no less than £1 billion? In view of the fact that the Opposition policy is to phase out the green currencies, will not their policy cause considerable inflation to which the Government are opposed?

I am willing to join my hon. Friend in his criticism of Opposition policy. I welcome the direction of his criticism. On the phasing out of MCAs, we made clear that we would be opposed to any change at present calculated to increase food prices in this country.

Since the Government failed, through severe political weakness, to join the EMS, have not the currencies of the Common Market members remained within the parameters set by the EMS? Will the Chancellor of the Duchy say clearly whether the Government still hold open the possibility of joining the EMS, and, if so, what timescale they envisage?

Of course we are open to join the EMS. By "we" I mean the Government. The hon. Member referred to political difficulties, but they were not decisive in affecting the final outcome. I remind the House that there is more than one view on the Opposition side of the House. The Leader of the Opposition was able to voice both views within a fortnight when these discussions were taking place. When there is talk of political opposition, the House should bear in mind that this is understandably a subject upon which opinion is divided, on both sides of the House. My own opinion has been made clear on more than one occasion.

National Health Service (Industrial Dispute)

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a further statement on the ambulance service.

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to broaden my reply to deal with other industrial action in the National Health Service today. Today there has been widespread disruption and I regret to tell the House that there may be more in the days ahead.

It is not yet clear how many people have ignored their unions' advice to maintain cover for emergencies. But in some cases this emergency cover has not been provided today.

The London ambulance service is the most serious example. Yesterday I had talks with representatives of the London ambulance men. They agreed to provide an emergency service. But this morning many of the men themselves rejected that decision and refused to cover emergencies. I therefore authorised the use of Army ambulances.

I understand that the West Midlands is the only other area in England where ambulance men have refused to provide emergency services, and an emergency service is being provided by the police and voluntary organisations.

Any industrial action in the Health Service is likely to pose some risk to patients, but in the past the need to cover emergencies has been accepted by virtually everyone. Certainly, the unions have advised their members to provide an adequate emergency service. Some of their members have now chosen to reject that advice.

The issue is, in my view, extremely serious. Those concerned must face up to the consequences of their actions. Lives are at stake. Health Service workers must now think very seriously about that and its implications for the future of the Health Service and the confidence which people place in it.

The ambulance men have put their case to me. It will not be strengthened by some of them adopting what will be seen as a callous attitude to the lives and health of their fellow men. I do not believe that this is the kind of men that they are. I hope that they will now step back from the brink.

There is now a danger that industrial action by the ambulance men and other Health Service workers will continue in the days ahead. Enough is enough. Only the innocent will suffer if Health Service workers allow their anger to run out of control. They have made their point with today's day of industrial action and lobby of the House. There can be no point now in taking it out on the injured, the sick, the old and others who depend on the Health Service.

That is why today I have invited the general secretaries of the Confederation of Health Service Employees and the National Union of Public Employees to meet me urgently with a view to resuming an orderly approach to settling this pay dispute.

Many workers in the Health Service feel that their pay is too low and that they have fallen behind other workers. The Government have recognised these concerns. Last week the Prime Minister offered a better deal for the low-paid and a study of pay comparability.

These proposals should pave the way to sensible settlements. I am meeting representatives of both sides of the Whitley Councils dealing with ancillary workers and ambulance men later this week. There will also be further discussions about handling the nurses' pay claim.

But, Mr. Speaker, I must make it clear to the House that this Government cannot and will not abdicate their responsibility and let wages rip. That is the road to disaster. The only results would be a return to mounting inflation, balance of payments problems, cuts in public services, high taxes and rates and more on the dole. Those who will suffer most from all this will be the low-paid and those on fixed incomes, such as pensioners. This is the law of the pay jungle.

The whole House will join in condemning this appalling situation, which can only be terribly damaging to the standard of patient care in the country. We join the Secretary of State in condemning strikes of this kind within the Health Service. They are intolerable and a reflection on decent society.

We wish to congratulate the Red Cross, the St. John Ambulance, the police and the troops on the ready and willing way in which they have stepped in to reduce the tragedy that the strike must mean for many patients.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there has been intimidation by union branches of members who do not wish to strike? Is he aware that in addition to the many parts of London where people have refused to deal with emergencies, in Cardiff, Glasgow, Inverness, Strathclyde and Fife—in addition to Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull—there has been a complete ban on dealing with emergency cases?

It is clear that further strikes of this nature are being planned. We have a right to ask the Secretary of State what instructions he has given to the unions. What steps is he taking to avoid further strikes of this kind?

The hon. Member asked about voluntary organisations. We must make it clear that everywhere it is best that ambulance men, with their experience and training, should do the job. Only if they cannot do so—only if they are not prepared to do so—is it wise to use other services. Obviously, if an ambulance man does not provide an emergency service, it must be provided in other ways. I therefore agree with the hon. Member and welcome the enthusiastic way in which the voluntary organisations and the police have stepped in where that has proved to be necessary.

The hon. Member referred to intimidation. I hope that he will give some examples of it. So far I have had no reports on, for instance, pickets stopping supplies from reaching hospitals. If that did happen I should take a very serious view of it.

It is true that in Scotland there is a considerable problem. Together with the voluntary organisations, the police have made alternative arrangements. In Cardiff the Army has made available a small number of ambulances to help out there.

I must tell the hon. Member that I give no instructions to the unions. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] The union leaders are committed to supporting the provision of emergency services. When there were threats to the emergency services, I called in the union leaders to discuss these problems. As recently as last week they confirmed union policy. I believe that it is their wish to sustain that policy.

The House will thank my right hon. Friend for the frankness of his statement. Does he agree that union-bashing from the Opposition does not help? Nevertheless, will my right hon. Friend make it clear to the strikers that whether they are ambulance drivers or doctors, direct threats to life should not be tolerated? Will he indicate that that is how hon. Members on the Government Benches feel?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Sometimes, exaggerated attacks upon the unions serve to undermine the influence of moderate elements who wish in these situations to maintain control. Hon. Members on both sides of the House should use restraint. I agree that the withdrawal of emergency services—which can only threaten the lives and health of men, women and children—by family men, or whoever may do it, is not tolerable to society. I believe that it is not tolerable to people on both sides of this House.

Is it not true that the union made a great miscalculation in calling a strike which it manifestly cannot control? Have we not reached rock bottom with the suggestion that people could be left to die as a consequence? Is not a badly paid health worker at least in a better position than someone lying in the road waiting for an ambulance?

The policy of all four unions, which have given me a clear indication of where they stand, is to provide emergency services. What has happened is that some men have not taken that advice. I met representatives of the London ambulance service yesterday. As shop stewards, they took a decision unanimously to pull back from the brink and provide emergency services. In many parts of London, in the early hours of this morning, many of their men were not prepared to go along with the decision that had been taken. That was the reason why I felt that it was essential to act firmly in support of the health authority and make available not only police but, especially, Army vehicles.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the London ambulance service has probably been one of the finest in the world. It is with deep regret that I and, I believe, all hon. Members view the action of some who have made the service unavailable for emergencies. May I pick up part of the Secretary of State's statement? The key to this matter is not just saying what one tells unions to do, or what one forces members to do—one cannot do that anyway in a democracy and a free country—but an immediate investigation of lower-paid workers in the National Health Service. When my right hon. Friend meets the general secretary of NUPE and others today, I hope that he will assure them that, in order to get the men back to work, this comparability study will take place immediately. We cannot go on tolerating a situation in which male nurses take home less than £40 a week. No one can justify that. It is part of the reason why there is so much trouble.

In relation to the London ambulance service and ambulance men generally, I would say that, today apart, they have been held in great respect throughout the country for the way in which they have worked, under great difficulties and often for difficult hours. They have served the people. I have joined in the condemnation today, but we should not forget the debt that we owe to the London ambulance service and to ambulance men throughout the country. On the question of pay, the Prime Minister last Tuesday described the Government's position in relation to additional support for the low-paid and made clear the position that we were taking on comparability. These matters are under discussion with those concerned. While they must be dealt with as an emergency, I do not believe that anything can justify the sort of action taken unofficially by those who withdraw emergency services.

Does not the Secretary of State's last reply clearly indicate the urgent necessity to arrive at democratic decisions within unions about action to be taken? Is it not abundantly clear that the suggestion of the Leader of the Opposition that there should be democratic decisions, and that a ballot should be taken, about the withdrawal of labour, particularly when lives are at stake, is so urgent that the Government must do something about it?

I am not going to respond to lectures by the hon. Gentleman and the Leader of the Opposition about the conduct of industrial relations with the unions.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that large numbers of hon. Members on the Government Benches believe that the ambulance men, the nurses and other low-paid ancillary workers in the Health Service and elsewhere are very badly paid but that this is the long-term result of free collective bargaining? Is it not the case that this problem cannot be solved overnight and that the sooner our trade union friends realise that, the better? Will he give two undertakings—first, that these problems will now be treated by the Government as a matter of urgency and, secondly, that no matter how justified the case, the Government will not allow, in any circumstances, emergency services of any kind to be jeopardised by the irresponsible action of an irresponsible minority?

I give an absolute assurance on my hon. Friend's last question. In addition, I believe that the cause for which people are demonstrating is deeply undermined, in the public's view, by those who act irresponsibly. In answer to my hon. Friend's first question, the Government are giving urgent consideration to these problems. It was for this reason that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made his statement in the House last Tuesday.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the ambulance men's branch in my constituency, which did not want to go on strike, has received a notice from the strike action committee that if the men do not strike, there will be "subsequent reprisals" taken against them and that any ambulance, for whatever reason, which passes the pickets will be "blacked for evermore"? Is that not intimidation? What does the Minister propose to do to stop that sort of bullying?

Obviously, I condemn totally that sort of action. If the hon. Gentleman gives me the information, I will make an inquiry. It cannot be other than against the interests of the ambulance men themselves.

Can the Secretary of State recollect the problems that confronted the police and the firemen? At that time, a long time ago, it was put to him that the three life-saving services, which includes ambulance men, should be dealt with. My right hon. Friend mentioned comparability. Will he give, or publish in the Official Report, figures showing the extent to which ambulance men have fallen behind the police and firemen in comparability? Why did he not deal with the matter two or three years ago? Then we might not have had the problem now.

Following the Prime Minister's statement about the way in which we intend to carry out studies of investigation on comparability, these are precisely the questions that will be looked at. Those questions include the extent to which people's pay is different from that in the private sector, and to what extent one can make a comparison between what they are doing and what people are doing elsewhere. These matters are being looked at very urgently. They are under discussion with those concerned and it would not be helpful for me to make a further statement in the House this afternoon.

Order. I propose to call two more hon. Members from each side, apart from the Front Bench. I also have an application under Standing Order No. 9 in connection with this matter.

Is the Secretary of State aware that when the ambulance men settled last year for 10 per cent. it was agreed that there should be further discussion about shift pay and holiday allowances? Will he confirm that in the last 12 months no progress has been made on those fronts? If not, why not?

It is not helpful in relation to today's action for me to deal across the Floor of the House with questions of percentages and wage negotiations. These are matters that should be dealt with through the proper channel. That is where they are being dealt with.

However competent it may be, the cover given by the police and voluntary services in the Greater Birmingham area is likely to be insufficient. Will my right hon. Friend say if and when steps can be taken to draft troops and vehicles into that area?

It is too early to say. I shall watch carefully to see how effective are the actions of the police and voluntary organisations. It is for the health authorities to indicate to me whether or not they can fulfil their statutory obligations to provide emergency services. If they cannot, the Government must decide the best way they can do it, because the Government have a responsibility to ensure that emergency services are provided.

I see the whole of the Government Front Bench in front of me. Is the Secretary of State aware that what we are seeing with all these strikes is not merely disputes about pay but the start of revolution, and that unless the Government decide to govern and are prepared in certain circumstances to remove pickets by force. England will dissolve into anarchy and chaos?

It is not revolution, but if I were to follow the course suggested by the hon. Member and others of his hon. Friends, that is where it might lead us. It is for the Government to decide the best way in which we can develop our relationship with the trade union movement in dealing with these difficult issues.

We must all be concerned about the dangers of the present situation, but is it not a fact that the lower-paid workers who are here today have an unanswerable case for an early substantial rise in their rates of remuneration? Are they not the victims of the disgraceful cuts in public expenditure that were forced on us by the IMF to some extent? Are we not in those circumstances right to reject out of hand the demand for further cuts in public expenditure called for by hon. Members on the Opposition Benches?

When the Government announced on Wednesday their public expenditure plan for the next few years, part of it was a significant increase in resources available for the development of the National Health Service. Those who are making their demands today should understand that if they seek wage settlements that have no other result than to push up taxes, rates and inflation, not only will that not mean that people have more money in their pockets to spend; it will also put in peril the Government's plans for expanding the resources available to the NHS. That is a lesson that must be learned by those who are involved in wage bargaining today.

Will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that in all parts of the House the deepest disquiet has been expressed not only about the withdrawal of emergency services today but about the threats for the days and perhaps weeks ahead? He said that he was meeting the general secretaries of the unions concerned. Will he bear in mind the fact that the official instruction from NUPE today and for the weeks ahead was to cause "the maximum possible disruption" of services? Will he impress upon them that, bearing in mind the nature of many of their members, that is a green light for the maximum disruption of services, and that, whatever they may say in their instructions about emergency services, that is bound to lead to the sort of action that we are seeing in the London ambulance service and in other ambulance services today? Will he try to persuade Mr. Fisher and Mr. Spanswick and the others that he will meet that they should withdraw that sort of damaging instruction and that if they must persist with their action, which we all deplore, they must ensure that it safeguards the health and lives of patients, which must be the primary responsibility of all in the Health Service?

I shall speak frankly, but I shall speak in confidence, to the general secretaries of the unions when I see them later today. But the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues should think carefully about the position that they themselves have taken. They themselves have given constant encouragement to free collective bargaining, and we are now reaping some of the consequences of their absolute irresponsibility.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you advise the House whether you have had a request from the Secretary of State for Education and Science to make a statement about why so many of this country's schoolchildren are being deprived of education today? Is it not quite unacceptable?

House Of Commons (Freedom Of Access)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your advice?

Half way through this morning, I was advised that my question No. 19 would be taken with question No. 2 and I made the necessary arrangements to be at the House in plenty of time. I was approximately a mile and a half from the House at two o'clock and I was prevented from reaching the House until three o'clock as the police had closed off many streets within the city of Westminster because of the demonstration and march by members of NUPE. I believe that the House issues a Sessional Order on the first day of a new parliamentary Session requesting the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to keep open access to the House and its precincts at all times when the House is sitting. I was prevented from reaching the House to deal with an important question that was on the Order Paper.

I seek your advice, Mr. Speaker, on the question whether, even at this late stage, I may be permitted to put that question to the appropriate Minister, or whether there is any other way in which I can deal with the matter.

It cannot be further to that point of order—oh, yes, the Minister is in the same plight, I think.

Sometimes I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and sometimes I do not—I am his immediate parliamentary neighbour. On this occasion I agree with him. I apologise for the fact that I was not in my place to ask question No. 13, but for reasons similar to those of my hon. Friend I was stuck with two other hon. Members in a traffic jam, and we could not approach the precincts in time. Like my hon. Friend, I hope that it will be possible to return to this question on a future occasion.

I have two observations to make. First, both hon. Members are almost invariably in their places when they have a question on the Order Paper to be called and I realise that it has obviously caused them distress that they could not reach the House today. Secondly, we must remember that the responsible authorities are under heavy stress on this day. We are all grateful for the steps that they have taken to ensure that so many of us have arrived here. It was easier for me than for most.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. With great respect, I think that a much more important constitutional point is at issue than you have answered. What is the effect of this House's Sessional Order? Does it override the instructions that the Commissioner has given today to keep the streets of London clear so that a mob withdrawing emergency services can come here? I believe that this is important. In no way am I seeking to criticise the police, who are being given an impossible job. None the less, this is the highest court in the land—it is the Parliament—and it should not be a matter of congratulation that so many of us have got here. It should be a question why any hon. Member was prevented from being given free access to do his parliamentary duty.

I think that the House must be reasonable in this matter. Of course, the police have their instructions from this House in the first Sessional Order that we pass, but it is entirely lacking in a sense of fair play and common sense towards those who are dealing with a major problem outside the House to say that under all circumstances they must get that crowd to make way to ensure that hon. Members may come through.

The hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) is correct in saying that hon. Members must have the right to come to this House. I am confident that the people responsible for law and order in the streets have done their best, but I will make inquiries on the matter raised by the hon. Members.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I fully appreciate what you have said about the difficulties of the police, but a very serious constitutional point has been raised by several of my hon. Friends. It is surely above all in circumstances such as these that unimpeded access must be guaranteed to hon. Members to come to this House, otherwise our constitution is threatened.

I welcome very much, Mr. Speaker, your statement that you will conduct inquiries into these incidents. Would you be kind enough to extend the dialogue further and to bring to the attention of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner the views which have been expressed in this House today, so that perhaps some arrangements can be made to facilitate Members in coming here, should this sort of position occur again?

Order. Before I take any further points of order, may I say that I will, of course, have discussions with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and do my best to ensure that this difficulty does not arise again. Mr. Mellish.

May I say, Mr. Speaker, with great respect and in an effort to be helpful, that it was a known fact—it was in the press yesterday and on the radio this morning—that there was to be a march of 60,000 to 70,000 people upon this House today. We all knew, as Members, that there would be terrible pressure on the police in order to keep open the doors of this House. Surely in these circumstances it behoves some of us to show common sense and get out of bed a little earlier in order to try to get to the House a little earlier.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I make it perfectly clear that I have no criticism whatsoever of the police? Once I was able to identify myself to a police constable, I received a motor cycle escort all the way down the Embankment, for which I am very grateful indeed. Sadly, it did not get me to the House in time to deal with my question.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for indicating that you will take up the matter with the Commissioner. It is possible, however, that there could, in the next few weeks, be several similar marches and demonstrations. If we are to have a series of them, the problems of Members will be considerable. This especially applies to those of us who represent constituencies outside London. I say this through you, Mr. Speaker, if I may, to the right hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish). Some of us have to come many miles to this House after we have attended constituency engagements on a Monday morning. Would you, Mr. Speaker, be good enough to discuss this matter with the Commissioner, in the light of the fact that there could well be a series of such marches and demonstrations?

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask you, with very great respect, not to bother the police with this matter. Like the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), I had to travel about 210 miles to get here. I was also stuck in a traffic jam. Realising that I had chosen the wrong route, I doubled back. I suggest that any hon. Member with an ounce of sense—[Interruption.] I have probably pitched it too high, Mr. Speaker, in referring to an ounce of sense. Any hon. Member with half an ounce of sense, in the light of the warnings which have been made for the past weeks, about a mass lobby should have made preparation for it.

I suggest, with great respect, that it will demean your office, Mr. Speaker, if you approach the police on this matter. What can the police do in these circumstances, knowing that the march is to take place—

Food Supplies

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the supply of food to the public during the road haulage dispute.

During the dispute, the public have been able to buy adequate supplies of essential foods. There have been shortages at times of certain commodities, such as sugar, fats, salt and occasionally eggs. I know that the northern part of the country, and in particular the North-West, has faced more trouble than the South. But there has not been anything which could be called a food shortage. Some at least of the difficulties have been the result of people buying more food than usual—although in general housewives have shown great common sense. At present there are good stocks of food in the country at the ports, in warehouses and silos and, of course, continually being produced from our farms, and there are adequate supplies in the shops.

From the start of the dispute, the Government have been in the closest touch with all those involved in or affected by it—the farmers, the wholesalers and retailers, the food manufacturers, the unions—to ensure that there should continue to be enough food in the shops. The contacts have covered not only discussions between Ministers and leaders of industry and unions but also many regional and local meetings to resolve local problems of food supplies. Above all, of course, those in all sectors of the food industry have shown great resourcefulness in overcoming their difficulties.

At the start of the dispute, picketing interfered seriously with the movement of food and animal feed. If picketing were still continuing at its most extreme extent, serious shortages of some foodstuffs would be inescapable. But once the strike became official, the Transport and General Workers' Union sought to give priority to the movement of things connected with the production and distribution of food.

On 18 January, the leaders of the TGWU followed up their meeting with the Government by issuing a code of practice to its members. This again emphasised that picketing should be confined to those parts of the road transport industry actually in dispute, and continued—this is the key section in regard to food supplies:
"in any event, pickets should not seek to prevent, hinder or delay vehicles carrying … supplies, including live-stock, for the production, packaging, marketing and distribution of food and feedstuffs."
It is still too soon to say whether the code of practice will be properly observed. The TGWU and the United Road Transport Union are trying to get the food moving, and my latest information this morning is that the situation is continuing to improve.

I do not wish in any way to minimise the problems we still face, or overlook the possibility that new problems could arise. But if the code of practice becomes steadily more widely observed we may expect adequate supplies to continue. Those are important "ifs". Potentially the situation remains serious, and, after what has already occurred, it may be some time before the full chain of production and distribution returns to normal.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's acknowledgment that the position remains potentially serious, but does not he think that he could have presented the House with a little more detail? There is nothing in the statement which can be said even to resemble news. As the right hon. Gentleman has been unable to give the House very much detail, perhaps I could ask him for his confirmation or denial of certain points which I should like to put to him.

First, is it not right that compliance with the code of practice has been patchy in the extreme, and that dispensations issued in one place have certainly not always been honoured in another?

As regards food for human beings, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether it is the case that one sugar refinery at Liverpool has been closed down and that three others are working at half rate, that the British Sugar Corporation is having great problems about getting beet in, and that this will probably be wasted altogether in the end? Will he confirm that there is also a considerable enduring problem as regards salt, and that the situation on edible oils is very serious indeed? Production at Erith is almost at a standstill and production has stopped at Seaforth.

Is the right hon. Gentleman able to say anything comforting about frozen foods, as it is said that the supply situation will take about seven weeks after the strike ends to return to normal? I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has heard of one particular situation, at Shrewsbury, where I believe Libby's main mill is now completely blocked of supplies and that as a result 100,000 cows, 800,000 poultry and 35,000 pigs are likely to be at risk within 48 hours.

May I also ask the right hon. Gentleman for some further information as to what is happening in the ports, where a very serious bottleneck is developing? Although there has been some improvement at Belfast and Hull, nevertheless at Tilbury no food or feedingstuffs are getting through at all, on the rather extraordinary ground that there are enough in the country already.

I should also like to ask about Purfleet, where deliveries of vegetable oils are down to a mere trickle. At Avonmouth the dockers are due to strike tomorrow, at Liverpool the code of practice is said by the strike committee not to exist at all, and at Felixstowe the port has closed.

That is the framework of information. It is necessarily uncertain because Oppositions do not have available to them the sources which are available to Governments. However, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will deal fully with what I have said and respond to it at an early stage.

The right hon. Gentleman has given me a formidable list of detailed questions which require an answer—[Interruption.]—unless hon. Members do not want an answer to them, of course, which I sometimes suspect. As far as the question of detail is concerned—[An hon Member: "Get on."] I shall when I am allowed to do so. Concerning the question of detail, the position really differs very much, as I said in my statement, in various parts of the country. For example, there is a difference in the situation between the South and the North-West, and there are differences between Scotland, Wales and England. The result is that because of this patchiness—the word that I think the right hon. Gentleman used—it is very difficult, except when dealing with specific questions, to give a general picture, other than the one I have given, which is that supplies of food in the shops are adequate and should continue to be adequate.

Having said that it is patchy, let me deal, first, with the commodities which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. As regards sugar, the information that I have at present is that the British Sugar Corporation is operating at about 75 per cent. capacity. I do not take the right hon. Gentleman's pessimistic view of the amount of beet sugar from the farms being spoiled. I think that farmers are a remarkably resourceful group of people. I believe that the raw material, the beet, is coming in in a variety of conveyances, but it is coming in.

Salt gave the Government considerable anxiety during the course of last week. But the position has improved enormously during the past two days—really, since the code of practice was agreed by the two unions concerned. There are two unions concerned, the TGWU and the URTU. Now both of them are allowing through a greater quantity of salt, and the situation appears to be improving the whole time.

The supply of edible oils presents a difficulty. I do not want to mislead the House about this. There are great stocks of margarine, and it would be useful if those could be allowed out because that is a bottleneck. I hope that that position will be improved.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of docks. Some, as he very rightly and fairly agreed, have become considerably eased. Hull is a very good example, and Belfast, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. Felixstowe, incidentally, is another. The greatest efforts are being made at present to see that the other docks at which there are difficulties are freed, loosened up.

The position is this—and here I return to the very fair point which the right hon. Gentleman made at the start about the patchiness. It is easy enough to formulate precepts which ought to be followed—the priority of movement of food, packaging and so on. It is not so easy always for those to be fully understood at a picket line. It takes some time, and there are sometimes difficulties in communication. Perhaps I may give an example. It is not immediately obvious, for example, that tinplate going to a canning factory may affect the supply of food that people will buy in shops. The tinplate becomes cans, and after the cans are filled with foodstuffs they go to the shops. However, when we have made the point clearly, we have found that our wish has been obeyed and that the supply of tinplate for tin cans for food has become considerably easier.

The right hon. Gentleman specifically said that the situation at Felixstowe had improved. I wonder whether he would be good enough to check up on my latest information that the port has been closed altogether.

Secondly, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will also make some inquiries at Liverpool, where I understand that a rather odd statement by the chairman of the strike committee said last Friday that, so far as Liverpool was concerned, the code of practice existed only in the imagination of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and that for Liverpool it did not exist at all. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would at least give the strike committee at Liverpool the benefit of his advice to the contrary.

I do not want to go too deeply into the remarks that are made about advice given to the Leader of the Opposition. The advice that her food adviser gave her 10 days ago was that Britain would face real hunger by the end of last week. That really was not true. Perhaps the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition should get another adviser. I shall show the right hon. Gentleman the quotation later, if he wishes.

From Sir Hector Laing.

Of course, it would be totally wrong for Liverpool or Felixstowe to be closed down. I shall do my best to look into the question that the right hon. Gentleman has asked, because my information does not fully support what he says. As he rightly says, the information is patchy, so I shall look into the matter.

In the light of my right hon. Friend's statement, may I ask whether he agrees with me that the gross exaggeration by both the press and the broadcasting media during the past weeks, aided and abetted by the Conservative Party, has been absolutely criminal? Does he further agree with me that their panic-stricken demands for a state of emergency have been proved to be wrong and that the Government's attitude in not being panicked on this matter has been proved to be absolutely correct by the statement that he has made?

Perhaps I may say this to my hon. Friend, and I hope that he will not take it amiss. The duty of the press, television and radio is to report what is said to them. Therefore, I do not regard them as being those who are creating the panic. They are merely reporting the advice that some people in the trade have given them.

I have been asked whether I think that some of that advice was politically motivated.

I prefer to believe that the gentlemen in question do not have a political idea in their heads and that it was sheer timidity and incompetence that made them say such things.

Does the Minister realise that the House will not have been at all surprised to hear that there are plentiful supplies at the ports? It is a little difficult to shop around at the ports or to feed animals at the ports. Will he say, first, what effect this is having on the price of food in the shops? He will have noticed that the price of eggs has risen quite substantially. Will he make sure that it comes down if and when the dispute is over?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman look at the situation in the ports with regard to picketing in the ports on the south side of the Bristol Channel and the River Severn in particular, where picketing is still stopping essential foodstuffs from being moved out?

Do I detect that the hon. Gentleman is calling for price controls on foodstuffs? If so, I shall certainly pass that on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection.

As regards the ports, the hon. Gentleman will have noticed that I was talking primarily about adequate supplies to the shops. That is true. That is one reason why the public are remaining calm.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about stoppages at the docks where picketing is stopping items which ought to be coming in in accordance with the code of practice. That was why I promised the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) to look into these questions. Obviously, if they are covered by the code of practice, they should be allowed free rein.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to his contacts with various interested organisations. What contact has he maintained with organisations representing the low paid and the pensioners in our society? Does he agree that a direct result of panic buying has been to make these people more vulnerable since they do not have the resources to stock up on these goods? Even if the distribution of goods improves, what contingency plans have the Government to ensure a more equitable sale of these goods in the shops?

Secondly, the Minister referred to difficulties in the North-West and the North. Was he associating Scotland with those difficulties, because it has had this dispute for 12 days, longer than the rest of the country, and does he envisage a Scottish Office Minister making a statement to the House on the situation in Scotland?

Perhaps I may take the hon. Lady's last point first. She probably did not hear me, but I mentioned Scotland in the course of my statement or in my first answer. I am well aware of the difficulties in Scotland. This is a matter for my right hon. Friend, as she knows, but I shall certainly pass on that part of her remarks to him.

On the first point, there is at the moment more than enough food if the people of this country behave with their usual common sense. They have been doing so. Therefore, there is enough for old-age pensioners, mothers of large families and all the rest. The difficulty comes when panic-stricken, timid, alarmist statements are made. The press has its duty. It must report the statements which are made, and one tries to counter them with the truth. But if that kind of remark continues, difficulties will arise. I agree with the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mrs. Bain) that these are the priority people in our community and that they should be most protected.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's usual reasonableness. Does he agree that the staements made by Sir Hector Laing, the official adviser to the Leader of the Opposition, are probably more responsible than anything else for the stortages of some selected items?

Secondly, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the steps which he has taken, with success, to ensure adequate supplies of feedingstuffs to farm animals.

I thank my hon. Friend for his second remark. That was the first difficult problem of priority and it was the first one to be dealt with.

As to those who make alarmist statements, I do not think that the gentleman mentioned by my hon. Friend was the only one. Clearly it had an effect. Last Thursday there was about 50 per cent. more buying in the shops because of alarmist statements made by some gentlemen, which were, of course, reported. When people understood the situation, on Friday and on Saturday the amount of buying went down.

In view of what has been said about Sir Hector Laing, I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions. First, is he aware that the Opposition have no official advisers on this matter? Secondly, I do not know what he does, but I have certainly asked for and listened to advice on the situation. What Sir Hector Laing has stressed to me personally on more than one occasion has been that the danger to food supplies will come when the pipeline has been emptied as a result of a prolonged stoppage, not now.

On 12 January—now 10 days ago—Sir Hector Laing said:

"Britain will face real hunger by the end of next week."
That is not true.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Sir Hector Laing also said that 70 per cent. of our food factories would be closed by the end of this week? Does he recognise that, despite what he said in answer to an earlier question, the BBC has some responsibility for ascertaining the truth of what it puts over? It simply is not good enough for it to put out stories which are spread by Tory propagandists.

To be fair, the BBC has also given me the opportunity to tell the country the truth.

Does the right hon. Gentleman, as Minister of Agriculture, realise the major concern of many farmers, particularly in the South-West, about the secondary picketing of animal feedingstuffs? What action is he taking, either personally or in conjunction with the Prime Minister, who was sitting with him on the Treasury Bench a few moments ago, about instances at Avon-mouth docks where independent drivers going to collect feedingstuffs have been all but forced to leave their cabs to go into a Seco hut to be seen by an interview committee, to be humiliated, to have their average daily wage demanded of them, to be told that they can go into the docks only by paying that amount of money and twice as much on behalf of their employers, who, after telephone conversations, agreed to their drivers paying this money, but objected to doing so? That is extortion, not a voluntary contribution, and something should be done about it.

If the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Gentleman has any facts of instances which are clearly against the law of the land, will he ensure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is given the details? I do not mean at this moment. The hon. Gentleman asked other questions and it would be only courteous to him to answer his questions and only courteous to me if he would remain in his seat until I have answered them. If the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Gentleman has details of actions which are against the law, the sooner we get the names and details and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has them, the better it will be. It is no use talking about them unless they can be produced.

The first point related to animal feedingstuffs. I was asked whether I had been in contact with the farmers. The answer is "Yes, daily". Indeed, when, if ever, I leave the House after the statement is concluded and questions have been answered, I shall be seeing the National Farmers' Union on the question of animal feedingstuffs.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, even if some pickets are not observing the code of conduct, any member of the union who crosses a picket line who is observing the code of conduct will be safe from any disciplinary action within the union, that if any disciplinary proceedings are brought against him the burden of proving that he had committed an offence will be on those laying the charge, and that, if any unconstitutional action is taken against him, there will be a remedy through the courts? If my right hon. Friend agrees, will he make a statement to that effect to encourage members of the union who wish to comply with the code of conduct to do so?

I have no doubt that my hon. Friend has well stated the law and that every chief constable in the country is well aware of it.

May I ask the Minister to comment on one subject which is all too familiar to him, namely, fish? Will he comment in particular on the situation in the South-West regarding the inshore trawlers from Brixham and elsewhere because the processing factory in Plymouth which makes animal feedingstuffs is closed, although no one involved has anything to do with the strike? The Avonmouth cold storage depot—I am not talking about the port—is also closed, although again no drivers are involved there. The local co-op always sends the fish to Avonmouth, yet it is not able to do so. Leaving Hull and Grimsby apart, where there are major problems regarding road hauliers, the local fishermen are having to dump fish back into the sea, which is a scandalous waste of food, or at best are having to get the French to come and collect the feedingstuffs and to take them to France. Meanwhile, the cold storage cannot be used and the processing factory cannot supply the animal feedingstuffs which the Minister said he was keen should be maintained. Will he look into and give specific answers to those matters?

I shall certainly look into them, and into any other case that can be put. As to the hon. Gentleman's general question, fish is coming in. I am glad to say that it is one of those articles of foodstuffs which is not in short supply, except for the normal reason which we all know about from the past.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in a recent "Jimmy Young Show" contact was made by managers of markets at Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Birmingham, the reports of which established plenty of available foodstuffs at prices lower than at this time last year?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. What with one thing and another, I have missed my "Jimmy Young Show" this week.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he is quite wrong about Hull? We have had our ups and downs there, but at the moment Hull is most definitely in a down. Only last Friday the strike committee openly and positively rejected the code of practice. I have been checking up on events over the weekend, and my findings prove that the confirmation of that rejection has gone into operation.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman's information is a little behind my own, but I shall certainly look into it.

Will my right hon. Friend accept the compliments of Labour Members for the balanced restraint of his statement? Does he agree that one major reason why adequate supplies of foods are in the shops is that the vast majority of people have refused to be stampeded by the words and behaviour of the party led by the Finchley hoarder?

A great deal of British common sense has come into this. I said that there had been moments when alarmists, from wherever they may come, have had their go. Frankly, I myself believe that a little courage and a little less timidity would not be a bad thing at the present time.

Will the Minister, on behalf of the Government, publicly state that in the Government's view it is quite wrong for little committees up and down the country to decide which goods can be moved in priority, particularly when the members of those committees are not elected? As it is quite obvious that there are militant aspects of the present hauliers' strike, will the right hon. Gentleman, on behalf of the Government and himself, use the special relationship the Government are supposed to have with the trade union movement and ask the trade union leadership to take some action against those militants who will not accept the advice and instructions of the national leaders of that particular union?

If the hon. Gentleman wishes it, I shall send him a copy of the code of practice which has been agreed to by the Transport and General Workers' Union. Perhaps he might also care to look at the tape this afternoon, because there is a Press Association release that he might find interesting. As to picketing, when Disraeli in 1875 introduced the law which allowed peaceful picketing, I take it that if the hon. Gentleman had been present at the time he would probably have approved it.

As a fellow member of the Transport and General Workers' Union, does my right hon. Friend agree that the directors of food manufacturing concerns, especially the one in my constituency—Quaker Oats—was greatly relieved after the issuing of the code of conduct? I was informed that there had been a considerable improvement in the situation and that in consequence the factory in my constituency would not now have to close. They were rather afraid of that. Does not he also agree that ever since they have taken the helm of events it has been the desire of the national leaders of the TGWU to contain this to a dispute within the road haulage industry?

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. I would add one thing. When they look at this perfectly calmly and logically, as I believe they are, away from all the panic which has been created, the people of this country will agree, as they did in the past, that voluntary co-operation between Government and union rather than confrontation is the only way to solve industrial disputes.

Order. Before I deal with the applications under Standing Order No. 9, I propose to call four more hon. Members who have been standing.