HC Deb 03 February 1938 vol 331 cc543-8

11.18 p.m.

Colonel R. S. Clarke

I beg to move, in page 38, line 28, to leave out "specified in the authority," and to insert: in an area in which the powers of the Commission under Section thirteen o the Coal Junes Act, 1930, of submitting schemes are exercisable. I shall be glad to know if I may speak on the remaining Amendments to this Clause in my name and those of my hon. Friends, namely, in line 28, after "may," to insert "so far as is reasonably necessary"; in page 39, line 2, to leave out "the Commission consider," and to insert "are reasonably"; in line 33, at the end, to add: (5) Any question as to whether a request made under this Section is reasonably necessary shall be determined by arbitration in accordance with the provisions of the Arbitration Act, 1889, and any Act amending the same, and unless such question has been so determined in favour of the Commission and a reasonable opportunity has been given to the person concerned in the arbitration to comply with the request Sub-section (4) of this Section shall not apply.

The Chairman

If the hon. Member regards them as one Amendment, I agree that they can be discussed together.

Colonel Clarke

This Clause empowers the Commissions, their servants or agents to enter the premises of a colliery and to inspect those premises and to take copies of maps, plans or any documents they may wish to see. They may inspect any documents, even the most private, such as partnership deeds, and I should imagine that in the case of an entailed estate they might even ask for a man's will. They can also ask for returns the preparation of which will cause a great deal of work. All this is done under the threat of heavy penalties. Few of us like our private affairs made public and it is an axiom of business to keep one's private affairs to one's self, not because there is anything in them of which one is ashamed, but because the disclosure of them might be of definite value to a competitor. I suggest that in this Clause that axiom is being unnecessarily violated.

I know that under Clause 45 penalties are imposed upon any one who makes wrongful use of information of that kind, but those penalties, though they appear to be considerable, are really inconsiderable in comparison with the tremendous value of some of the information which might be obtained. I suggest, too, that there is a real danger of a leakage of information. This information goes to the Board of Trade, the Commission, the Central Valuation Board, the referee appointed under the First Schedule, to the Regional Valuation Board and to those who may be engaged in arbitration proceedings. In all those cases there is a danger of documents being left about, so that people going in and out of those offices might see things which they ought not to see. We fully agree that the Commission must have power to examine documents, but we feel there is a vital need for the tightening up of the provisions of this Clause.

Our first Amendment limits investigation to actual undertakings concerning which a scheme of amalgamation is intended. The second is concerned with the same principle. The third also is intended for the same purpose. The last one gives a procedure for arbitration in case of need, which would I think be fair to both parties concerned. I and my hon. Friend respectfully submit that the introduction of these Amendments would make the working of the Clause more equitable, and would not in any way detract from its effectiveness, and I therefore ask the Minister to give them his careful consideration.

11.25 p.m.

Captain Crookshank

As my hon. Friend chose to deal with all these Amendments together, perhaps I might also be allowed to do so. His desire is that private documents, secret papers and bills should not be disclosed improperly, and that is obviously right, but he must take note that the only information that can be secured under the authority of this Clause is specifically stated in line 30 to be what is required for the discharge of the functions performed by the Commission. It seems very unlikely that the kind of document to which he referred would be covered by any need of that kind. His suggestion, therefore, falls to the ground, as far as the secrecy of the documents is concerned, and their relevancy or otherwise, because that is tightened up by this Clause.

The first Amendment which he proposes is that instead of being able to go into the coal mines and get this information they must not do anything except in an area about which an Order has been made that the Commission may exercise its compulsory functions. If the people in whom he is interested were resisting an Order by the Commission, that is just the type of information which would presumably have to be produced by them. They would themselves have to produce it as the best basis of their case. It is only common sense that the Commission in its preliminary voyage of inquiry as to whether this area is one in which compulsory powers ought to be exercised must have something on which 1o frame their judgment. No one who has had any experience of these matters would be satisfied by saying: "Let us look at the map or give a look round the outside of the building." Obviously they must get information. There is a safeguard against their asking for anything that is improper by the requirement that the information must be something required for the discharge of their functions under this Measure. My right hon. and gallant Friend says let us put in "information reasonably required," and then let us have an arbitration as to what is reasonable.

Really, if it is granted that you must have some information to enable them to discharge their functions under the Measure, you cannot have a responsible Commission put into a position where they say, "Under the Act, I may inspect so and so or take a copy of a plan," and each time the Commission or its representative says that, another man may say, "No, that is unreasonable; take me to arbitration." Surely, the sanctions of the Bill are reasonable, namely, that the information shall be given and that if it is refused, the matter is then one for the courts. If the person to whom the application was made thought the application unreasonable he would refuse still to produce the information and the case would go to the courts. That seems to be a far more practical way, and certainly a more normal way, than suggesting that the word "reasonable" with possible arbitration to follow shall be inserted. On the other point, when he said that of course there might be a great leakage of information, and that it would be very undesirable that anything should get out of a private or confidential nature, I agree with him. That is why we have put a provision against disclosure into Clause 45, with heavy penalties; that an offender shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to a fine not exceeding five hundred pounds or to both. I should think that was pretty heavy and a very good guarantee of nondisclosure. But much of the information is safeguarded by the words for the purpose of the discharge of the functions to be performed by them. Of course, it would be proper for the Commission to disclose information, for the purpose of the discharge of their functions with regard to amalgamation under Clause 1, to one of these other bodies, which can only get this information by its disclosure under those powers. I think, therefore, that we have really all the reasonable safeguards for dealing with this matter, and I suggest that the Committee should not accept these Amendments.

11.31 p.m.

Mr. Peake

My hon. and gallant Friend has informed the Committee that the information which may be obtained under Sub-section (1) is information required by them for the discharge of functions to be performed by them under this part of the Bill. But Sub-section (4) says: Any person who, after having had produced to him the written authority of any such member officer or agent as aforesaid, obstructs him in the exercise of his powers under this section or refuses or neglects when required to produce any accounts, books, plans or other documents under his control, and so on, is guilty of an offence and liable to be fined £50. It appears to me that the words of Sub-section (4) are very much wider than the limitation of the documents required under Sub-section (1), and I would ask my hon. and gallant Friend to note that point between now and Report.

Captain Crookshank

I do not think I am wrong, but I think that is intended to cover the requirements of paragraph (2).

Amendment negatived.

Cause 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again."—[Lieut.-Colonel Charles Kerr.]

Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Monday next.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

It being after Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-five Minutes before Twelve o'Clock.