HC Deb 23 June 1939 vol 348 cc2617-9

11.11 a.m.

Mr. Dalton

I beg to move, in page 2, line 26, to leave out paragraph (a).

This Amendment is designed to remove, I hope, certain doubts which arose in the Committee stage regarding the powers of the Minister. The right hon. Gentleman will observe that this is not an Amendment which we desire to press to a Division, because if we did so and succeeded it would cut out powers which, in our view, are already not too strong. The purpose of the Amendment is to afford to the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity of making a statement, which he undertook in Committee to make after consultation with the Law Officers of the Crown, as to whether or not the form of words in this Clause imposes a limit of quantity on the purchases which he is entitled to make and on the operations in regard to storage, and so forth, which he is entitled to carry out. When the matter was before the Committee, the Minister explained that there was no limit of quantity, but some of my hon. Friends were not satisfied with that statement, unless it was fortified by consultation with the Law Officers, because we observed there was not in the Clause what some of us desired to see, namely, a statement that no limit of quantity was imposed.

The House will remember that other forms of words were suggested, one by the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander). Objection was taken to the form of words, but I am not proposing to ask any questions to-day about that. We should, however, be glad if the Minister would report to the House the result of his consultation with the Law Officers and give us, if he can, a statement that he is not limited in the powers proposed to be conferred in this Clause as to the scale of purchases and operations, that any operations which the broad interests of the community seem to require will not be interpreted in a narrow business fashion, but that the articles which may be required for the public service will be purchased and stored without limit, particularly in the eventuality of war.

11.13 a.m.

The Minister without Portfolio (Mr. Burgin)

When the Bill was passing through the Committee stage and we were discussing Clause 2 and the powers which the Minister had under that Clause, I was interrogated as to the extent of the Minister's powers and in particular as to limits on those powers. I refer to the Official Report of 19th June, cols. 1907–1913 inclusive. It will be within the recollection of the House that the framework of the Ministry of Supply Bill provides: (1) for the setting up of the Ministry, (2) for the giving of permanent powers, (3) for the giving of temporary powers, and (4) certain ancillary provisions. The question we are now discussing arose on the permanent powers of the Minister, powers notably set out in Clause 2 to buy, manufacture, produce, store and transport articles required for the public service with corresponding power to exchange, sell or dispose of them.

The impression which I desired to give to the House was, that where a Minister has power to purchase and there is no express limit inserted in the Clause, the Minister exercises complete discretion as to the quantity of the articles to be purchased. The Minister is responsible so far as the expenditure of money is concerned to the Public Accounts Committee of this House, and the Minister for everything that he does, either with regard to the expending of money or as to the exercise or failure to exercise his powers, is accountable to this House in the appropriate way. I expressed the view that the motive for the purchase of any particular commodity at any time was not stated in the Clause. I, therefore, deprecated an Amendment in the name of the Hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander), introducing an element of motive. In the course of the discussion I was asked whether my conception of the Clause and of the powers given by it had been referred to the Law Officers of the Crown, and I gave an express undertaking to consult the Law Officers of the Crown upon the subject matter of the discussion and to obtain their ruling upon the interpretation to, be put upon the Clause. I have carried out my undertaking and have consulted the Law Officers, and the following statement is in accordance with their advice.

It is the fact that in exercising my discretion as to quantities, I must consider what would be essential to the needs of the community in the event of war. It is a matter for my judgment whether any particular quantity of any article required for the public service comes within my powers given by this Act or not. I have, that is to say, complete discretion as to the quantity of the articles which in my opinion are essential for the needs of the community in the event of war, which are the relevant and very wide words of the definition clause—Clause 18. I am perfectly entitled to determine that for supplying the needs of the community in the event of war I must be on the safe side and I may order accordingly, and if it ultimately turns out that the quantity I have purchased is too much, the only persons who can question the exercise of my discretion are the Public Accounts Committee and Members of this House.

Mr. Dalton

In view of the statement of the Minister, which I, for my part, regard as reasonably satisfactory, although I still think it would have been better to have put explicit words in the Clause, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.