The Bill, which is a short one, similar to those introduced for each of the last ten years, proposes that the Supplies and Services (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1946, which is due to expire on 31st March shall be extended for another year.
In introducing a similar Bill last year I referred to the formidable legislative programme to be undertaken before the Supplies and Services Act could be allowed to lapse and indicated that an extension of the Act would be necessary if it was not found possible to complete this programme within the year during which the life of the Act was then extended. Despite very considerable progress the year intervening since the 1955 Act has not been sufficient to permit the introduction of all the necessary legislation.
The Act of 1946 enables the Government and Ministers to make Orders for the control of essential supplies including control of prices, control of imports and exports, reduction or suspension of customs duties and various other matters. As I assured the House last year, and now repeat, it remains my desire and the desire of the Government to dispense with this temporary legislation as soon as possible and to provide by permanent legislation for such powers conferred by the Act of 1946 as it is essential to retain in the public interest.
So far as my own Department is concerned, such alternative legislation has already been enacted for the control of exports by the Control of Exports Act, 1955, and for transport matters by the Transport (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1955. The powers exercised to control the importation and wholesale distribution of tea are provided for in the Tea (Importation and Distribution) Bill, 1955, at present before the Dáil. Matters still remaining to be dealt with are the control of prices, the control of subsidised flour and the suspension or amendment of customs duties. While it has not been possible as yet to introduce Bills covering these controls the progress towards that end has been as rapid as possible.
As regards other Departments, many of the controls formerly exercised under the Supplies and Services Act are now operated under powers conferred by recent enactments. I referred last year to the State Guarantees Act, 1954, and the Exchange Control Act, 1954. In the meantime the Agricultural Produce (Meat) (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1954, the Fertilisers, Feeding Stuffs and Mineral Mixtures Act, 1955, the Seed Production Act, 1955, and the Agricultural Produce (Cereals) (Amendment) Act, 1955, provide permanent legislation for various controls for which the Minister for Agriculture is responsible. The Dairy Produce (Price Stabilisation) (Amendment) Bill, 1955, is before the Dáil and two other Bills dealing with the controls which he also proposes to retain over milk and dairies, and pigs and bacon will be introduced at an early date.
The Minister for Social Welfare will shortly sponsor a Bill to continue certain social services (the cheap fuel scheme, cooked meals scheme and public assistance footwear scheme) at present operated under the Supplies and Services Act and the Minister for Local Government has a new Bill under consideration to amend the Road Traffic Act which will provide for the maintenance of such controls at present exercised under the Supplies and Services Act as are considered necessary to retain.
In all, seven Bills have already been enacted, and two further Bills are before the House. Some nine Bills will require to be enacted before the Supplies and Services Act can be permitted to lapse. The matters still remaining to be dealt with require very careful consideration and the controls pertaining to them operated at present under the Supplies and Services Act must be retained until alternative legislation is enacted.
The control of prices, in particular, is a matter to which I have given the most careful consideration. On the outbreak of war in 1939, it became obvious at once that the price control arrangements provided for in the Control of Prices Act, 1937, would be totally inadequate to meet the emergency conditions then prevailing. That Act, which with an amending Act of 1938, represents our only permanent legislation dealing with general price control, was, therefore, immediately superseded by the emergency powers legislation which has constituted the statutory basis for our price control arrangements right up to the present time. Although not repealed, the 1937 Control of Prices Act was left in abeyance and is now moribund. I am satisfied that it would be neither practicable nor desirable to attempt to revive the 1937 Act and that it would be preferable to make an entirely new approach to the problem of permanent price control legislation.
Out of the experience of the operation of the emergency price control arrangements, there has emerged a certain pattern of procedure which could possibly form the basis of permanent legislation. There can be no doubt but that the flexibility of the existing arrangements has proved advantageous in dealing with the wide variety of price problems which have arisen—particularly over the past 12 months. To mention but a few, investigations have been undertaken in relation to the prices of bread, coal, gas, cigarettes, intoxicating liquor, fertilisers, and motor car insurance.
The public has become familiar with the procedure of public inquiry and representative groups are now more ready to appear and support by direct evidence their views in relation to price increase proposals which may be under investigation. Whilst certain criticisms have undoubtedly, and perhaps unjustly, been levelled at the Prices Advisory Body, I think it will be agreed that the body represents for the community generally its best assurance against unscrupulous price exploitation in the difficult situation in which, in common with many other countries, we now find ourselves.
It would be a relatively straightforward matter to devise permanent legislation to provide only for the methods of price control in force to-day, but I am not satisfied that that would represent the most desirable solution to this difficult problem. The existing arrangements were primarily designed to meet the problems arising from emergency conditions and the fact that they are so readily adaptable to the circumstances of to-day merely reflects the near-emergency situation through which we are now passing. It is not so certain, however, that the present arrangements would represent the ideal approach to the problem if we returned—as I hope we soon may—to a more tranquil economic situation in which wide fluctuations in the prices of essential commodities would be very much the exception.
Above all else, it is in my view essential to ensure that the public will have the fullest confidence in the methods adopted to control and stabilise prices. Any disturbance of that confidence could well defeat the whole purpose of price control arrangements. It is for this reason that I feel a considerable reluctance, at this particular point of time, to substitute for the now familiar arrangements, new and untried arrangements. It would be most unfortunate if any new price control arrangements became, at the outset, associated in the public mind with the rising costs inseparable from a general inflationary situation and the harmful economic consequences which would inevitably follow, or become discredited through inability to hold prices stable in circumstances, like those at present prevailing, in which increasing costs stem primarily from external factors which it is beyond the capacity of any authority here to control.
For these reasons, I feel that it would be wholly unjustifiable for me to attempt to introduce permanent comprehensive price control legislation at this stage. I consider this question of timing to be one of some importance. If a suitable economic climate for the introduction of such legislation should not develop before the expiry of the Supplies and Services Act, then I shall have to consider the expedient of introducing a temporary measure designed to maintain the existing price control arrangements in operation until a more appropriate opportunity offers to deal with the problem in a fully comprehensive way.
The House may be assured that the legislative programme necessary before the Supplies and Services Act can be allowed to lapse is proceeding as rapidly as possible. The continuance of the Act is still necessary to retain vital controls pending the completion of the programme and I am, therefore, asking the House to continue the Act in force for a further period to 31st March, 1957.