HC Deb 01 July 1935 vol 303 cc1669-75

11.8 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 2, line 28, at the end, to add: and no guarantee shall be given under this Act after the date of such further agreement or certificate until such further agreement or certificate has been approved by resolution passed by both Houses of Parliament. Very few words will suffice to explain this Amendment. The Bill is entirely concerned with the agreement which is set out in the Schedule. Clause 1, Subsection (5) provides that if this agreement be amended either by a further agreement, or by a certificate of the Minister of Transport, the Treasury is to lay a copy of the agreement or certificate before both House of Parliament. The Amendment proposes to add that no guarantee shall be given under the Act, after such Amendment has been made until that Amendment has been approved by Resolutions of both Houses of Parliament. That I think is a necessary condition of the Clause and was probably intended when the Bill was drafted. Parliament is extending public credit to guarantee moneys raised for the purposes set out in this agreement. If those purposes are amended that Amendment must be laid before Parliament. It is equally necessary that no guarantee should be applied until such Amendment has been approved by Parliament. It would obviously be useless for the Bill to carry Sub-section (5) as it is, because notwithstanding that the Amendment had been laid before the House, the guarantee might easily have commenced to apply. It is necessary that the House, by accepting this Amendment, should safeguard the public credit by seeing to it that it is not applied to anything which is not in the Schedule to the Bill until after the House has approved the alteration.

11.11 p.m.


I am sure that on reflection the hon. Member will not think the Amendment is really necessary to the Bill, which I know he wishes to see passed. I do not think he need be under any alarm as to the object of the proviso which this Amendment would limit. The object of that proviso is not that there should be or is likely to be any drastic, fundamental, or really important change in the terms of the agreement, which have been already [...]et out and are contained in this Bill, but that if there are any modifications which prove to be necessary or desirable as the various schemes are worked out, they may be effected within the scope of the agreement. The hon. Member can easily imagine the kind of adaptations and additions that may prove necessary as the schemes are worked out, which are not actually contained in the words of the agreement as they now stand. The effect of his Amendment, if passed, while I do not think it would do much harm, might do this amount of harm, that, supposing the whole sum had not been raised and supposing certain modifications took place during a period when the House was not sitting and it became necessary to raise the remainder or a further portion of the guaranteed amount during that period, the whole work might be held up because it would be impossible to obtain the approval of the House of Commons for the alteration.

I think the safeguards as they are are really sufficient. Any such modifications are bound to receive the approval of the Minister of Transport and subsequently to be laid before the House of Commons, and I would remind the hon. Member that the whole of this long agreement was concluded without the approval of the House of Commons. It was laid before the House afterwards and, I think, obtained their complete approval, and I hope any such subsequent Amendments as may be found desirable in the working out of the schemes are equally likely to obtain that approval. I would, finally, remind the hon. Member that the real safeguard is the fact that no more money can possibly be raised than is already provided for in the terms of the Bill, namely, a total of £40,000,000. Although I do not think the hon. Member's Amendment would do any harm, I feel confident that it is not necessary and could not do any good or make the Bill more efficient than it is to carry out the purposes which have received the approval of almost all parts of the House.

11.14 p.m.


I appreciate the argument put forward by the Financial Secretary, that if there were some sort of modification of the agreement which in practice was found desirable, it would be a waste of time to have to bring the matter for approval before the House before the guarantee could be applied. That is reasonable, but under the Clause as it stands it might be possible to bring about a drastic alteration of the agreement, and that is a far more serious matter. It might be possible to alter the agreement almost completely and not come before the House of Commons for formal approval. If we could be given some assurance that this is only meant to apply to small modifications within the framework of the agreement as set out in the Schedule, I think probably my hon. Friend and those who sit here would be satisfied. If we were definitely given to understand that, should there be any really important change in the agreement as set out in the Schedule, it would be brought before the House for formal approval, I think we should be satisfied.

11.15 p.m.


It is difficult on the spur of the moment to give the assurance for which the hon. Member asks, but I can assure him that there is no intention whatever, and no expectation of any drastic change being introduced into the agreement. This proviso is merely put in as a precaution in case, as schemes are worked out, certain modifications, improvements and changes prove necessary.

11.16 p.m.


There is another side to this question. It might be found, after a few months, that the fears of the manager of the London and North Eastern Railway, who has discussed these things in public, are valid, and he might not want to go on with the scheme in its entirety as it is before the Committee now. We have no guarantee that one of the companies might not drop out because of the difficulties of carrying through the proposed arrangements. It may be said that we have the agreement, but conditions might arise to prevent it being carried out. Before any new agreement or real modification is made, we want the House to have an opportunity of approving it. The hon. Gentleman said it was difficult to give an assurance on the spur of the moment, but if there is no Amendment there will be no Report stage. Therefore, we shall have no other chance of getting this point settled unless it can be done in another place.

11.18 p.m.


The right hon. Gentleman will have another chance and full opportunities of raising points like this because the three undertakings have to proceed by Private Bills in order to get the powers which they have undertaken in the agreement with the Government. In order that they may carry out their share of the agreement they have to get powers from Parliament, and any details as to the exact nature of the agreements will be more suitably discussed on these Private Bills. All that this Bill does is to ratify from the point of view of the Government the agreement which the Minister of Transport entered into on general lines with the three undertakings.

11.19 p.m.


The Private Bills will not meet the point that we have raised, because they will deal with individual companies. One company—the North-Eastern, for instance—might bring up a Bill which, in the view of the House, was unsatisfactory. There would be no opportunity of carrying out this agreement after we have rejected their Bill or tried to amend it against their will, or tried to impose conditions on them that they felt they could not carry out. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman cannot meet us because we will have to divide on this, not because we want to divide this hot night, but because we do not want to be told later that we acquiesced in what is being done.


I gather the right hon. Gentleman is afraid that the undertakers may not implement their side of the agreement. They have to come before Parliament with a Bill, and when that Bill has been passed they will be under a legal obligation to do it.


But they may not do it, for if the manager of the London and North-Eastern Railway Company persuades his company that they are not able to carry out this obligation—and he really has said some very serious things about it—then the Bill will never appear.

11.21 p.m.


I really am rather surprised that the hon. Member should not have accepted this Amendment. Here is a vast and complicated scheme which, before it can be implemented, requires a series of private Bills which are bound to take a considerable time. What we are asking is surely not only reasonable but in the best interests of proper financial control by the House of Commons. If there is an undertaking to give a guarantee, based upon an agreement, and if there are modifications of that agreement, the guarantee should not apply until the modifications had been approved by the same body that approved the agreement. That, surely, is common form, and is a reasonable request such as the House has a right to make and one which ought to have been granted without question.

The only argument advanced by the hon. Gentleman seems to be the rather fragile one that it might hold up the work; but the chance of that is minute. There will be a vast job going on here, there and in many places, and the idea that this work is going to be held up because the House of Commons has asked to see any Amendments in this vastly important agreement seems an insufficient reason why the House should be asked to forgo these proper powers of financial control. Neither is it quite right to say that the private Bills will provide the opportunity of doing what this Amendment seeks to do. The private Bills will be concerned with the work to be done by each separate undertaking. There might easily be modifications in principle in almost every one of the paragraphs of this agreement which the House of Commons ought to know about and to approve, before the public credit is pledged.

Let me take one example: There are provisions in the agreement that if Parliament should withhold powers which are sought by the undertakers by Private Bill, the undertakers are automatically let out of their undertakings in the agreement—which is quite regular. The hon. Member says that these Private Bills provide us with our opportunity in this matter, but our only opportunity is to withhold powers. In order to evade its obligations, a company, say, the London and North Eastern Railway Company, might easily go to the Ministry and say that if they wanted to get anything done at all, the best thing would be for the Minister to agree to an alteration of the agreement, and since the alteration would not have to come before the House the guarantee would apply to a scheme which was quite different from the scheme which the House had sanctioned. I again appeal to the Government, in the interests of proper financial control, to accept this Amendment, and I feel sure that the Members of the Government, if they were not sitting on the Treasury Bench, would hold this view with even greater vehemence than I do.

Question put, "That those words be there added."

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Preamble agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment; to be read the Third time To-morrow.