HC Deb 31 March 1938 vol 333 cc2271-6

8.6 p.m.

Captain Crookshank

I beg to move, in page 83, line 17, to leave out from the beginning, to the end of line 29, and to insert: (3B) Upon the occasion of the appointment of a member of a committee of investigation as a representative of any interest, the Board shall, after consultation with such bodies as appear to them to represent that interest, appoint two persons, one of whom shall, in the event of that member being unable to act on the investigation of any complaint, be selected in such manner as the Board may direct to act as the member of the committee representative of that interest and a person so selected for the investigation of any complaint shall, in relation to that investigation, be deemed to be the member of the committee representative of that interest, and references in this Section to 'the members' shall be construed accordingly. There is a second Amendment, in line 31, to leave out from "investigation" to "Any," in line 34, which must be taken in conjunction with this Amendment. These two Amendments arise out of the discussion in the Committee of the powers proposed to be given to the chairman to the effect that his view should prevail in the committee of investigation. It was thought by hon. Members in various parts of the House that it was a most deplorable thing to suggest, although it is not an unknown provision even in mining circles. We have considered the position further and we recognise that it is now a rather difficult proposal to justify, seeing that there is appeal machinery. When it was originally suggested, and indeed agreed upon by all parties concerned, there was no suggestion of any appeal machinery from the decision of the committee. We were told that what was vital was speed and finality in the decisions of the committee. After that the opinion was reached that some appeal machinery would be more in line with present legislation, and that has been provided, and as speed and finality are not so necessary now we feel that the chairman of the committee need not have these great powers.

The quorum originally was three, with the chairman having a casting vote. In order that there shall be every consideration for the different interests involved who sit on committees of investigation, in the proportion half of coal interests and half representing the consumers, it seems to us that the best plan is to have a quorum of four with the chairman to have a casting vote. Hon. Members can realise what that involves. It means that if there are four persons present, and the chairman, and three take one view against the chairman, then his views cannot prevail. Of course the three would be made up two of one interest and one of the opposing interest, and, therefore, it would obviously be wrong for the chairman's view to prevail in cases of that kind. The ordinary procedure of giving him a casting vote will normally allow the committee to function by a majority. It seems that the best way to get what we want is to raise the quorum to four.

The House will recognise that we are dealing with people who are giving their services in this matter. They are not paid officials or servants of the State, and to collect four people at short notice is not always easy. Of course, the chairman has always to be present and we have made provision for a panel of chairmen, so that that part of the committee will always function quickly. We have also made provision for substitute members, otherwise you will be driving these voluntary workers rather hard, particularly as many of those who will represent the coalowners and the miners on the committees are officials in their districts or on the national Executive, and consequently have a great deal of other work to do. Therefore we suggest that there should be two substitute members for each member of the committee, and in that way we do not think there will be any diculty in getting the committee together quickly and rapidly. Of course, the substitute members would be nominated by exactly the same interests as now nominate the members of the committees. The selection as between original members and th substitute members would be governed by rules in the way the Board of Trade may direct. The second Amendment merely sweeps away the provision in the Schedule which gave the chairman powers to which exception was taken. We suggest that in order to make the new plan work quickly the quorum should be four, and regulated in accordance with directions issued by the Board of Trade under the 1930 Act. Therefore, if the Amendment is adopted directions with regard to altering the quorum will be given as soon as the Bill becomes law. I hope the House will accept the proposal as being an answer to the criticisms made at an earlier stage.

8.13 p.m.

Mr. Shinwell

I rise only to say that we think the Government have made an attempt to meet the representations which were made in Committee. We are anxious that the committees of investigation should function properly and thoroughly, and that they should not break down for want of a proper attendance on the part of members. We appreciate the difficulty of the Government in finding a means of escape from the difficulties which presented themselves, but, on the whole, this is a satisfactory method of dealing with the matter.

8.14 p.m.

Mr. Ross Taylor

I rise to oppose the second of the Amendments referred to by the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I confess that I do not feel in any way convinced by the arguments he has adduced for the alteration he proposes to make in this Schedule. I cannot accept the view that the creation of the proposed appeal tribunal renders unnecessary the special powers which the Schedule gives to the chairman. Those who were in the House when this point was considered on the Committee stage will remember that the Secretary for Mines adduced very strong arguments for giving the chairman power to take the decision when the other members of the committee were divided. He told us at the same time that the idea was not novel in the coal industry, in that its principle was applicable in the case of the selling schemes and of the conciliation boards, and his argument was reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake), who pointed out that owing to the conflict of opinion which might exist between the two members of the committee representative of the consumers' interests, it might be very difficult to get a decision in any circumstances in favour of the complainant.

I do not see that the creation of the appeal tribunal alters in any way the cogency of the arguments which were then put forward, and I feel very much that the fact that the decisions of the committees of investigation will be able to be brought before the appeal tribunal should remove the misgivings which were expressed by those hon. Members on both sides of the House when the Bill was in Committee, who thought the chairman of the committee would have too much power. It seems to me that if this Amendment is accepted, it will mean in effect that this safeguard to the consumer will function only if the representatives of the consumers are in agreement. If they are not in agreement—and owing to the conflict of interests they will very often not be in agreement—then the decision must inevitably go against the complainant who has brought his case to the committee, and that means that the decision will be based, not on the merits of the case, as it should be, but on the sectional interests of the members. The result of that, as far as I can see, will be to reduce the proceedings of the committee to something approaching a farce, and the unfortunate complainant, who no doubt would have been put to great trouble and expense in preparing his case and bringing it before the committee will find that he has in fact only one degree of jurisdiction, and that the court of appeal.

Having regard to the fact that the committee is to be composed of an independent chairman, who is a qualified lawyer, and of four lay representatives, two of whom represent coal interests and two of them consumers' interests, and having regard also to the fact that the committees are in future to have something more than mere powers of investigation and are to exercise judicial functions, it seems to me that those lay members of the committee should be regarded as assessors and not as judges, and that if they are divided in their opinions, three to one, the chairman ought to take the decision. That decision may be right or it may be wrong, but at any rate it will be a decision which has been judicially arrived at—a disinterested decision. If it is appealed against and goes to the appeal tribunal, that tribunal will at least have a judgment to consider which they know to be unbiased. On the other hand, if the decision is merely a majority decision, come to without any regard to the merits, the judgment which the appeal tribunal will have to consider will be simply worthless.

Those of us who from the very beginning, ever since this Bill appeared, have been concerned with the interests of the coal consumers are very grateful to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and my hon. and gallant Friend the Secretary for Mines for strengthening the safeguards which are designed to protect the consumer against exploitation, but even now we do not regard these safeguards as adequate, and we do not want to see them whittled down. I, for one, am very strongly opposed to the alteration in the Schedule which is now proposed, because I think it will take away one degree of jurisdiction in a system which even now gives very scant protection to the consumer. On these grounds, I think the Amendment ought to be opposed.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 83, line 31, leave out from "investigation," to "Any," in line 34.—[Captain Crook-shank.]

8.22 p.m.

Captain Crookshank

I beg to move, in page 85, line 29, at the end, to insert: 7. At the end of the said Section five the following Sub-section shall be inserted: '(11) Any appointment to be made by the Board of Trade under this Section of a person who is thereby required to be a member of the legal profession shall be made after consultation with the Lord Chancellor.' There are two or three Amendments on the Paper in the name of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North-West Hull (Sir A. Lambert Ward) dealing with the point that before a chairman is appointed to these committees, the Lord Chancellor should be consulted. This Amendment is designed to do that, but it is in a more correct form than his Amendment, and I move it with the greater pleasure because consultation with the Lord Chancellor on a matter of this kind is obviously what a common sense person would do. I say that advisedly, because I did it myself.

8.24 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher

I must oppose this Amendment. We have to be very watchful and very careful in selecting legal gentlemen, but to consult a legal man, and such a legal man as the Lord Chancellor, about the legal man whom you are going to select is too dangerous. I want to put this very seriously. I do not know the present Lord Chancellor, but I have known Lord Chancellors who were exceptionally biased and very violent in their politics, and it is an absolute certainty that if a board went to consult such a Chancellor, you could tell beforehand the particular type of legal man that he would choose.

Mr. Quibell

A safe Tory.

Mr. Gallacher

Yes, a safe Tory. The Lord Chancellor is a political figurehead—and some of them have been awful figureheads—and that he should be brought into consultation, in connection with the appointment of one who ought to be absolutely unbiased, is wrong. With all respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman who has been leading the Opposition during this Debate, I do not think any hon. Member on this side has any confidence in legal gentlemen, and the higher they are placed the less confidence we have in them. I oppose this Amendment. It should be possible, out of the wide range of legal men available, for those who are responsible to make a suitable appointment, and no reason of any kind can be advanced for having consultation with the Lord Chancellor, unless it is desired to fill all these posts with nice respectable Tory lawyers. That would be most undesirable from the point of view of obtaining unbiased judgments.

Amendment agreed to.

Bill to be read the Third time upon Monday next, and to printed. [Bill 118.]

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

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