HC Deb 04 June 1934 vol 290 cc691-705

9.35 p.m.


I beg to move in page 8, line 6, to leave out Sub-section (1).

I am moving this Amendment merely in order to ask for information. I understand that under Section 2 (7) of the Import Duties Act the Advisory Committee have the power of summoning witnesses in order to obtain the necessary information for their proceedings. Apparently under this Clause that power ceases to apply to Section 10 of the Finance Act, 1932. That Section means that when it becomes a question of the import of foreign machinery into this country, if the committee are satisfied that there is no machinery here to compete with it, and that the same machinery is not procurable in this country, they have the power of admitting foreign machinery free of duty. Under this Clause the committee will not have the power to summon witnesses or to obtain information in respect to this matter as they have under other provisions, and we want to know why in this case of the importation of foreign machinery, or in the case of the committee wishing to change their mind later on, they are not allowed to ask for witnesses and get evidence on which they can make their judgment. I do not suspect any sinister design behind this proposal. Behind the candid countenance and the innocent exterior of the Financial Secretary I am sure there lurks no guile. I do not suspect any evil design behind it, because the Financial Secretary is possibly the one member of the Government, with the exception perhaps of his immediate leader, the Foreign Secretary, who has the title of holy innocent, and I hope he will escape the massacre in the coming reconstruction. I would ask him to explain the truth of this matter with his accustomed clarity and all the sad lucidity of his soul.

9.39 p.m.


The only purpose of moving this Amendment is to get some information along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend. It appears to us that there is no reason, on the face of it, why the power to get information should not be extended to Section 10 of the Finance Act, 1932, which is rather an important one. It deals with the importation of machinery and gives power for a duty to be put on if it should appear necessary; and there seems to be no reason why information which is required for the purposes of the Advisory Committee should be excepted so far as this particular Section is concerned. The answer may be that it may be necessary to act quickly in the case of certain machinery to be imported, but I want to suggest to the Financial Secretary that in the importation of foreign machinery with, very often, foreign workmen to work it, it is necessary that full information shall be given. Obviously there may be a good deal of unrest, and in certain trades a good deal of suspicion aroused by the importation of foreign machinery accompanied by foreign workmen, the whys and wherefores of which do not seem to have been explained either in this House or to the public as a whole. Consequently we feel that we ore entitled to some explanation why this particular exception should be embodied in the Finance Bill.

9.42 p.m.


The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Cocks) and the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Banfield) have asked me to explain with particularity the meaning of this Clause, and at their invitation I gladly respond. Sub-section (7) of Section 2 of the Import Duties Act, the Section referred to in this Clause, empowers the Import Duties Advisory Committee to obtain information so far as they consider it necessary or desirable for the purpose of a proper discharge of their functions. We extend that power to cover subsequent enactments which have not vested them with a similar power. Since the Import Duties Act was passed many Acts have vested in the Import Duties Advisory Committee certain functions, and it is in connection with the discharge of those functions that we desire to extend to the committee powers similar to those that we gave to them under the Import Duties Act. I will give the enactments in question in full, because the hon. Gentlemen who spoke asked me for them. They are Section 11 of the Ottawa Agreement Act, 1932; Section 7 of the Finance Act, 1932, concerning the removal of goods from the Free List; Section 9 of the same Act, concerning drawbacks; Section 10 of the same Act, concerning the exemption from duty of consignments of machinery, which appears specifically exempted because the onus is obviously on the applicants to prove their case, and they will voluntarily give such information as they desire; Section 9 of the Finance Act, 1933, relating to the varying of the Silk Duties; Section 16 of the same Act, relating to the substitution of a specific duty for a general ad valorem duty; and Sections 18 and 19 of the Finance Act, 1933, relating to the treatment for duty purposes of goods imported after having been subject to a process abroad. The. hon. Gentlemen who have put forward this Amendment will see that the purpose of the Sub-section which they desire to remove is clearly to extend to the Import Duties Advisory Committee in regard to other enactments the same powers as they already possess in regard to their own Act.

9.45 p.m.


The hon. Gentleman has carefully avoided answering the only question which was asked, namely, why are the Committee not allowed the powers under Section 10 of the Finance Act, 1932? The hon. Gentleman says that in such a case people will voluntarily give information. So they will if they want a drawback. Anybody who wants anything will voluntarily give information, to a limited extent, so much as he thinks will suit his case; but the object of this Section in the Import Duties Act was to enable the Advisory Committee to see that they got all the information, and not merely the information which the applicant thought fit to put before them. If that applies as regards the imposition of duties or the giving of drawbacks, or anything else, why on earth does it not apply as regards the import of machinery free of duty into the United Kingdom? The words in Section 10 of the Finance Act, 1932, say: If, in any case where it is proposed to import into the United Kingdom any consignment of machinery…the Import Duties Advisory Committee are satisfied that machinery similar to that consignment is not for the time being procurable in the United Kingdom. That is something about which they cannot satisfy themselves by asking the applicant; they must ask the manufacturers; but they have no power to get the information, because it is expressly excluded under this Sub-section. The Section then goes on: having regard to all the circumstances it is expedient that the consignment should be allowed to be imported. That has nothing to do with the applicant; that concerns the trade of the country, the manufacturers, the national interest and all the rest of it. Those are not matters on which the applicant can supply them with information, if he wants to do so; but for some reason or other, in this one item, they are being precluded from getting any information from anybody else at all. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman looks into it he will agree that there must be some oversight or mistake, because this is making it impossible for the Advisory Committee to carry out their duties, and I do ask him to say that this matter will be considered seriously, with a view to taking out these words at a subsequent stage.

9.48 p.m.


I quite see the hon. and learned Gentleman's point. The reason why we do not give to the Import Duties Advisory Committee the power to require this information in regard to an application for machinery is that in the case of machinery an application is made by an individual, and the individual will naturally provide the committee with all the information in his possession. In regard to any other of the cases, including drawbacks, the case is quite general; it does not concern one individual only, as in the case of machinery, but the whole community of trades. Therefore, we think it unnecessary to provide the Committee with powers to require an individual to give any information that may be desired by the committee. The committee have general powers and not powers concerning an individual in particular. The committee can refuse without much difficulty the application of an individual for the exemption of certain machinery; but where they are concerned with the treatment of traders as a whole we think they ought to have very general powers of inquiry, in the common interest. That, I think, is the answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

9.50 p.m.


There is another point which, if I may say so with respect, the hon. Gentleman has missed. It is true that the individual making an application will lay before the committee all the information which he thinks it necessary to give in order to persuade them to grant the application, but they are required to have regard to the surrounding circumstances. In other words, they are not to grant this application unless they are satisfied that certain conditions obtain, that the machinery cannot be obtained, etc. The applicant will make the best case he can in support of his application, but it will be necessary for the committee, who have to weigh this matter judicially, to have regard to circumstances outside the information supplied by the applicant. That, surely, is the whole intention of the Section to which this Sub-section refers, and if they are to do that, they surely require to have power to do what this Sub-section seeks to except them from doing.

Amendment negatived.

9.52 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 8, line 26, to leave out from "Committee," to the end of the Clause.

The discussion which has just taken place has familiarised hon. Members with the point with which this Clause deals, that is, the power of the Import Duties Advisory Committee to obtain the disclosure of information. Many of us on these benches have from the first been very suspicious of this committee and the tasks imposed upon it. We do not like an extra-Parliamentary body to be functioning in this way. It is most distasteful in many respects. The latter part of this Clause, as I read it, even makes it possible for the Advisory Committee to withhold information from a Government Department. Surely a Government Department should not be deprived of any information which it thinks necessary. A Government Department ought to be in a position to say what information it requires for any specific purpose, and why should we confer upon this extra-Parliamentary body the power to withhold that information? Will the champions of democratic institutions and democratic freedom tell us why they allow this power to be conferred upon this body?

9.55 p.m.


It is natural, the views of the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. C. Brown) being different from ours, that there should be a cleavage of opinion upon this question. We have empowered the Import Duties Advisory Committee to obtain such information as may be necessary for the discharge of their function, and we say that this information obtained confidentially shall not be disclosed except for purposes of obtaining further information. The hon. Member for Mansfield thinks that it should be disclosed urbi et orbi—to everybody. So I understand the Amendment. The Sub-section says: it shall be lawful for the committee to disclose to any Government Department or to any person authorised by a Government Department any information obtained by the committee "— and the words which the hon. Gentleman desires to leave out are— if and in so far as it appears to the committee to be necessary for the purpose of obtaining further information. etc. He desires to give the Committee power to communicate this information for other purposes.


To a Government Department.


Yes, or to any person authorised. He desires, in other words, to divulge the information for purposes other than the discharge of the functions of the Committee. That is the plain meaning of the Amendment. I agree with him, although I am sorry to say the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Gripps) does not agree with me or with his hon. Friend. We say that the committee shall only divulge this information so far as that is necessary to obtain further information from a Government Department. We treat the information and the facts given to us by a private firm as confidential. Should it be the desire of hon. Gentlemen opposite to acquire particulars of businesses for purposes of furthering their own policy, we suggest it be incumbent upon them to come frankly to this House and obtain powers for that purpose. Here we are only dealing with the Import Duties Advisory Committee and the functions which they have to discharge. I think it will be accepted by the Committee as a whole that any knowledge obtained by that committee about individual concerns should be regarded as secret and not to be communicated, not only to the public, but to other officials, except for the discharge of their functions. That position should be regarded as sacrosanct.

I quite understand that when hon. Gentlemen opposite come into power they will require to know the secrets of businesses for purposes other than those for which we use the information. When that day comes they should overtly and in a candid manner come before the House of Commons, not with an Amendment to an insignificant Clause of the Finance Bill, but with a principal Measure and disclose to the House exactly what their intentions may be and the manner in which they desire to give them effect. They will pardon us if, proceeding upon a more modest scale, we give discreetly and with restraint powers to the Import Duties Advisory Committee to require certain information to be used in a discreet and restrained manner.

10.0 p.m.


I agree with one thing that the hon. Gentleman said, and that is that we should require information of the secrets of businesses for purposes other than that for which they are now used, but we should not require them in order to wangle a little extra profit for vested interests; we should require them for the good of the community. It is very pleasant to realise that the hon. Gentleman feels that the moment is coming nearer and nearer when those things will happen.


It is a long way off.


That remains to be seen. We can only look at by-elections and judge. As regards the question of our asking for powers, the Financial Secretary need not be afraid; when we want them we will do that. The present question does not concern any powers that we might want to have, for they will have to be far wider to be of any use. The point that is raised here is the serious one of whether the Treasury, in making up their minds and taking responsibility, as they have to do under the Import Duties Act, for bringing Orders before this House for the imposition of taxation should be deprived of the power of investigation into the facts. As matters are at the moment, the Import Duties Advisory Committee can make the most complete and thorough investigation. An Order is made, but the Treasury have to take the responsibility of vouching for that Order.

It was said, at the time when the Import Duties Act was going through the House that the ultimate responsibility for this rests on the Treasury. That is obviously right, but is it right in those circumstances that the Minister should be debarred from satisfying himself on particular points as regards the advisability of bringing an Order before the House? Must he, in other words, accept everything the Import Duties Advisory Committee do at its face value, without having any right to ask them whether on this or that point there is sufficient information to satisfy him that he ought to bring it before the House of Commons? In a number of cases, probably, he will not want to do so, but there may well be cases where he would be forced to say, "Without that information I will not bring it before the House of Commons." It might be a very serious matter for the people who might otherwise benefit by the Order.

It is ridiculous to say that this is a suggestion that the Government Department which deals with that responsible body should broadcast the information. The Chancellor of the Exchequer can be relied upon, as he is in regard to Budget matters, where the most confidential information is disclosed to him and his Department by industry in order to assist him in making his Estimates. It is just the same here. The Government Department responsible, the Treasury, can be trusted to see certain information if they desire to satisfy themselves that an Order ought to be brought before the House of Commons. As the Clause is at the moment, if the Minister desires to be satisfied the Advisory Committee have no power to allow him to satisfy himself on any single point. I suggest that this is making an absolute fetish of confidential information, and that this is a matter where the Advisory Committee should be in a position, if a Government Department considered it necessary to ask for information, to be able to supply it. It would be covered by the Official Secrets Act, as all information of that kind would be covered. Unless the hon. Gentleman is going to say that his Department is so unreliable that everything that goes there leaks out, I do not see that there can be the slightest objection to this information going to his Department as and when his Department require it for the purpose of making up their minds. We are not prepared to allow the Clause to go through in its present form, where a responsibility has been placed upon the Minister and he is put in a position in which he cannot exercise that responsibility in a proper and efficient manner.

10.6 p.m.


I think that before we leave this Amendment the Financial Secretary should make a serious attempt to meet the arguments of the Mover. It is not sufficient for him to prophesy what those on this side will do when they get into power. I would like him to explain to us the real reason for the Clause. The Import Duties Committee has now been in existence for some time, and this Sub-section seems to suggest that there is some information which they refuse to give. It seeks power to compel the Import Duties Committee to disclose information, and it limits the compulsion by saying that they shall disclose the information in so far as it may be necessary to deal with some other matter. The Financial Secretary talked about broadcasting the information, but the Subsection confines the disclosure of the information to a Government Department. Why should not a Government Department have whatever information it desires?

When the Import Duties Committee was set up, it was given power to obtain information, and it was understood that that information was not to be divulged to anyone; but the steps now taken in this Sub-section seem to prove that the Treasury at least think that there is some information that a Government Department needs. If there is any such information which the Advisory Committee have, and which they have refused to disclose, I think the Amendment to limit the disclosure leaves the Sub-section as it should be, demanding the disclosure of the information for the information of the Department, so that the Department shall be in a position to judge whether an Order should be brought before the House. If the impression one gets is right, that the Import Duties Committee has been refusing to disclose information, one cannot understand how the Treasury have been able to bring before the House the Orders which they have brought before it. If a Department needs information, that information ought to be disclosed by the Committee, in the interests, not only of the Department, but of the House of Commons.

10.10 p.m.


I am not quite clear yet as to the purpose of this Clause. The hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) suggests that, if the Clause remains in its present form, it will be impossible for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to obtain information from the Import Duties Advisory Committee with regard to the evidence laid before them—information which might be essential to him in making up his mind whether or not he would make himself responsible for bringing an Order before the House based on the recommendations of the Committee. Is that really so? It seems to me, reading Section 10 of the Import Duties Act, 1932, that it is not so. According to that Section: No information relating to any individual business, being information which has been obtained by the committee or the Board of Trade by virtue of the provisions of this Act, shall, without the previous consent in writing of the owner for the time being of that business, be published or disclosed except to members of the committee or to a Government Department requiring that information for the purposes of this Act. … In these circumstances, surely it is possible for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ask for this information before making himself responsible for an Order?


That might have been so if the Clause were left as amended, but, if it is left as it is, the right to disclose to a Government Department is clearly limited, as I see it, to those matters which are dealt with here, that is to say, only if and in so far as it appears to the committee to be necessary.


That is the point that I have tried to make—it is a difficult legal point—namely, whether the effect of these words is to deprive the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the power which he has hitherto had of demanding from the Import Duties Advisory Committee sufficient information to justify him in bringing an Order before the House, or whether the words of the Clause are to be read in relation to the words of the principal Act and whether, in fact, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have the power to ask for full information from the Advisory Committee.

10.13 p.m.


I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman, who

has accurately stated the position. All that the Clause says is that: Notwithstanding anything in the said Section ten, it shall be lawful for the committee to disclose to any Government Department or to any person authorised by a Government Department any information obtained by the committee if and in so far as it appears to the committee to be necessary for the purpose of obtaining further information.…


That limits the former power.


Does it limit the former power?


Certainly not; it only enables them to disclose information to officials.

10.14 p.m.


Will not the words if and in so far as it appears to the Committee to be necessary give the discretion to the committee? If so, that will deprive the Chancellor of his former power. If not, why are the words put into the Bill? We are giving the committee a discretionary power which they have not under the original Act.


No powers are taken away; the powers are extended, in the sense that they may disclose to officials for the purpose specified, whereas previously they could not do so.

10.15 p.m.


If that be the case, what is the object of Sub-section (3)? If it neither limits the power——


It extends it.


If it extends it, in what manner does it extend the power that already exists?

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Clause."

The Committee divided: Ayes, 251; Noes, 35.