HC Deb 14 November 1939 vol 353 cc587-98

Order for Second Reading read.

4.6 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The general purpose of this Bill is to enable qualifications to be made of the constitution and electoral procedure of various bodies. It deals with three classes of bodies, those incorporated under Royal Charter, statutory bodies, and universities and colleges. Clause 1 deals with bodies incorporated under Royal Charter. Put briefly, it provides that the Lord President may by Order in Council modify the provision of the Charter as to the constitution or the discharge of the functions of the body, if satisfied that such modifications are necessary or expedient for the purpose of securing economy or efficiency in the carrying on of the work of the Corporation under war conditions. But for the special machinery provided in this Bill, such modifications can only be made by the submission of a supplementary charter, which is a somewhat lengthy and somewhat costly process. One or two examples will show the type of case which has arisen. The Royal Institute of British Architects desire to suspend the election of their officers; they wish their officers to be enabled to go on and to co-opt other members to fill vacancies. The Chartered Institute of Secretaries wish to be allowed not to have to publish a year-book, and that seems a reasonable thing to allow them not to do during the period of the war. I do not think there will be any controversy about the Bill. A number of chartered bodies have qualifications of this kind, and it is desirable that there should be expeditious machinery for dealing with them.

Clause 2 deals with statutory bodies and corporations. There is a long list and I will give one or two examples— drainage boards, port and harbour authorities, the General Medical Council, and various other bodies with miscellaneous activities. The Clause falls into two parts. Under Sub-section (1, a) His Majesty may by Order in Council make, with respect to such a body, a provision for extending the term of office of members or officers, or postponing the date of election of new members, and so on. That is a somewhat similar provision to the provision which this House enacted for local authorities. It has been suggested that this part of Sub-section (1, a) of Clause 2 should be put in motion only on the application of the body concerned, that is the provision with regard to chartered bodies, and we feel that it is a reasonable suggestion. Subject to the approval of the House in Committee, therefore, we propose to submit an Amendment to Subsection (1, a) to provide that the machinery shall not start operating except on the application of the body concerned.

Subsection (1, b) deals with a different matter. It provides that His Majesty may, by Order in Council, make provision for reducing the number of persons required to constitute a corporation or body; but the powers under Sub-section (1, b) are limited to the bodies set out in the Schedule. There is power under Sub-section (3) to add bodies to the Schedule by an affirmative resolution of both Houses. It was felt that, in connection with the provision under Subsection (1, a), the House might want to have the matter brought to its attention and made the subject of an affirmative resolution before the procedure of the Clause was set in motion. The two cases mentioned in the Schedule are those of the Electricity Commissioners and the British Overseas Airways Corporation. The position with regard to the Electricity Commissioners is this: Under the Electricity Supply Act of 1919 there have to be three whole-time Commissioners. The maximum number of Commissioners is five. There could, therefore, be two part-time Commissioners. In fact at the moment there are three whole-time Commissioners. As the House knows one of those Commissioners has recently been appointed to another position, namely a position in the Ministry of Shipping. What it is desired to do is to reduce the number of whole-time Commissioners, to retain the services of that gentleman as a part-time Commissioner, and those responsible are satisfied that under war conditions two whole-time Commissioners and one part-time Commissioner can adequately perform the work.

Mr. Ede

Has the Attorney-General not understated the position? The person now doing this dual work is chairman of the Electricity Commissioners and Director-General of Shipping, and he really holds two most important positions under two separate and unconnected Ministries.

The Attorney-General

I can accept that statement. As I say, the reason for putting the Electricity Commissioners in the Schedule is that it is realised that that is a position which could not continue. It is desired that while this gentleman, of course, takes his full appointment in the Ministry of Shipping, he should be available as a part-time member of the Electricity Commission so that the Electricity Commissioners may have the benefit of his services and experience on many important matters, should they be required, and those responsible for the Electricity Commission are satisfied that with the two remaining Commissioners and power to ask for the services of the gentleman in question, the work of the Commission can be carried on efficiently in war circumstances. The position of British Overseas Airways Corporation is that under the British Overseas Airways Act of 1939 the Corporation was to consist of a Chairman, a Deputy-Chairman, and not less than nine and not more than 15 members. Since that Act was passed we have changed from peace to war. The aircraft of the two Corporations which formed the British Overseas Airways Corporation have been taken over by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State for Air feels that this large Corporation is quite inappropriate to conditions as they will apply in war time, and therefore it is desirable to have power to reduce the number of that Corporation, which, of course, was settled with a view to expansion of the enterprise which it was hoped might take place under peace conditions but which are wholly inapplicable to war circumstances.

Clause 5 is an exclusion Clause which excludes certain bodies which would otherwise be within the words of Clause 2. The powers do not apply to local authorities or to the B.B.C., or to universities or university colleges. The reason for the last exclusion is that those bodies are specifically dealt with in Clause 3. When the Bill was before the House which dealt with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, I was asked whether similar enabling legislation would be passed to deal with other universities and university colleges. I said it was intended to introduce such legislation, and this is the legislation in question. Shortly put, it gives them power to pass emergency Statutes which will be required to deal with such matters as the postponement of elections to offices, the suspension of offices becoming vacant, the suspension of conditions relating to candidature and the tenure of offices, scholarships, and so on. This form has been considered with the universities, university colleges and colleges affected by it and is, I understand, acceptable to them. Clause 4 gives power of retrospection. The reason for that is that certain bodies were, I understand, under the impression that they were covered by the Local Authorities Act and, therefore, did not hold their elections, and there may be one or two other cases in which, for instance, chartered bodies faced with some other difficulty may not have taken some step which under the strict terms of their charter they ought to have taken. I hope the House will agree that this is not an unreasonable case to give retrospective latitude.

4.18 p.m.

Mr. Dalton

Some of the things proposed to be done under the Bill are, no doubt, necessary, or, at any rate, will be found to be highly convenient. My hon. Friends do not propose to offer opposition to the Bill, although there are one or two matters on which we are inclined, as at present advised, to contemplate putting down some Amendments in Committee. First, as to Clause 1, which deals with chartered bodies, I should like to draw attention to the very wide terms of the Clause which gives power to the Lord President of the Council on application being made to modify the provisions of any charter, by-laws, regulations or other instruments as to the constitution of the corporation or of any body of persons formed for the purpose of discharging any of its functions, or as to the discharge of the functions of any such corporation or body. The powers could hardly have been wider drawn than that. I raise the query whether it would not be a proper safeguard for any Orders-in-Council under this Clause to be laid before Parliament, subject to annulment by Prayer. I do not imagine that in the great majority of cases this would be more than a mere formality, but, in view of the great width of the powers proposed to be taken, I should have thought that it was not unreasonable, in order to prevent something slipping through which really was not reasonable and to which the Lord President of the Council had, perhaps, assented without sufficient consideration, to ask that these Orders should be laid on the Table of the House. My hon. Friends feel inclined, unless the Attorney-General can give cogent reasons why not, to move an Amendment to that effect.

With regard to Clause 2, I was glad to hear the Attorney-General say he was prepared to put down an Amendment which would assimilate the provisions of Sub-section (I, a) to the provisions of Clause 1 so far as the need for an application to be made by the body desiring the Order-in-Council to be issued is concerned. Otherwise it would be possible, as the Clause stands, for the Lord President to issue an Order which, perhaps, it had been urged to issue by some other body but which was not really desired by those primarily concerned. An Amendment such as the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggests would, therefore, be welcomed. None the less, I am not quite persuaded that Sub-section (I, a) is necessary at all. The Attorney-General said it was analogous to the arrangements already made in the case of the postponement of elections for local authorities, but that is really quite a different matter. Elections of members of local bodies involve the holding, very often, of public meetings, the proceeding of numbers of persons to the poll on a particular day, and the congregation of people in one place, and that is not at all analogous to the provision whereby a person is appointed by a local authority, or a committee of a local authority, to serve on such a body as, for example, the Lee Conservancy Board. The analogy is not complete, and it does not seem to me that the argument in favour of extending the term of office of members of local authorities applies to the kind of elections which, in fact, are covered by Sub-section (I, a). Moreover, although it makes a welcome advance that an Amendment should be moved requiring the body concerned to make application for an Order, that, perhaps, is not enough.

The London County Council, for example, makes appointments to the Lea Conservancy Board, which may or may not be a somewhat somnolent body and which may desire nothing better than to be left undisturbed during the period of the war, however long, and they may well be moved, by this desire, to make an application to have themselves continued without further disturbance by outside nominated bodies. None the less, it may not be, on balance, desirable to have, may be, an aging body of men, some of whom should be replaced. Would it not be desirable to insert a requirement not only that the body directly concerned should make application but also that the nominating body should be consulted before such application is entertained? Would it not be proper that the London County Council should be consulted before the Lea Conservancy Board was permitted to stabilise its membership, including nominees of the London County Council? Perhaps the Attorney-General will embody some such idea in further Amendments.

Coming to Sub-section (1, b) of Clause 2, I should like to say a word about the inclusion in the Schedule of the Electricity Commissioners. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) speaks with more authority than I do, and he and others are a little disturbed at the proposal whereby the same gentleman should be Director-General of the Ministry of Shipping and also should remain Acting-Chairman of the Electricity Commissioners. We judge that both these posts are important and they should both be filled on a full-time basis by a man who is able to devote all his energies to the work. I cannot imagine that the post of Director-General of the Ministry of Shipping would be thought otherwise than a most important post which should absorb the whole energy of whoever holds it. Nor can I accept the view that in war time the post of Chairman of the Electricity Commissioners is so unimportant that it can be filled on a part-time basis by a gentleman who is primarily engaged elsewhere. I am advised that there are many important duties which the Electricity Commissioners may have to undertake in time of war, and by reason of a state of war. I am advised that movements of population, the possible setting up of new munitions factories in areas not hitherto highly industrialised, and many other such factors, may make it necessary to instal new electric plants, and new schemes of electrification may have to be drawn up by the Commissioners to meet new conditions in the distribution of population and of industry. I cannot understand how it comes about that those responsible for the Electricity Commissioners are satisfied. I do not know whom the right hon. Gentleman means when he says that those responsible for the Electricity Commissioners are satisfied.

The Attorney-General

The Electricity Commissioners under the Statute are responsible to the Minister of Transport, who is responsible to this House. What I meant was that I understand that the Minister of Transport, and, indeed, any others concerned, were satisfied.

Mr. Dalton

Perhaps we had better have the Minister of Transport here at a later stage. It is not quite satisfactory to get it at secondhand from the Attorney-General. Perhaps, also, the Minister of Shipping would have a view as to whether his Director-General should devote his spare time to consider matters relating to electrical development. My hon. Friends are not satisfied, and we shall take occasion to raise the matter in Committee, when I hope the Ministers who have assented to this scheme will attend, because this is not purely a legal matter. It is a matter of practical efficiency in looking after the shipping of the country, on the one hand, and electrical supply and distribution on the other. We do not consider that these two important tasks can be effectively done by one man, however able he may be. I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon; I see him sitting at the extremity of the bench. Perhaps he would like to offer an opinion in the course of this discussion as to whether he thinks the Director-General of Shipping could usefully spend a day or so each week performing duties connected with the Electricity Commissioners. He should have been consulted by the Attorney-General, and I am sure he would like to give us his view at a later stage.

Passing to the other item in the Schedule, we warmly welcome the reduction in what we consider to be the over-large number of persons who are to supervise the British Overseas Airways Corporation, even though it be on the pretext of war. We think the number proposed would be suitable not only in war time but possibly in peace time. We make no objection to that. With regard to Clause 3 we raise no objection, and with regard to Clause 4 the Attorney-General has dealt with a question that puzzled me, namely, as to why it was necessary to put in this retrospective provision dating back the powers to 1st September. I have mentioned one or two points in detail, and, as I have said, my hon. Friends will probably feel inclined to put down Amendments dealing with these matters when we reach the Committee stage, but before this Second Reading Debate closes, perhaps the Attorney-General will find it possible to say something on what I have said.

4.32 p.m.

Sir Reģinald Clarry

I have viewed with some apprehension the effect of the wide powers under this Bill if they were applied to public utility statutory undertakings, and I was glad to hear the Attorney-General give an assurance that an Amendment would be put down by the Government which would provide that the Act would operate in respect of public utility statutory undertakings, and possibly others—I was not clear on that point—only when there was an application from the body concerned.

4.33 p.m.

Mr. Edmund Harvey

The learned Attorney-General has told the House that Clause 3 is the result of the promise made by the Government during the course of proceedings in connection with a recent Measure dealing with the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the University of Durham. I am glad the Government have taken the responsibility of giving a measure of relief in war conditions which may be of great advantage to the Universities concerned. My hon. Friend the Member for the University of London (Sir E. Graham-Little) has not been able to come here, but I believe he is especially interested in this matter in view of the help which will be given to his University.

Before we pass the Second Reading I would like to ask the learned Attorney-General whether he would explain what is intended by the words in Clause 3 "on behalf of any University"? Does that mean that the application for an Order-in-Council would have to come from the court or the council or senate of the University, or does it mean that the application would be made simply by the vice-chancellor on his own authority? The learned Attorney-General explained that this Clause had the consent and approval of the Universities and colleges concerned. I think the vice-chancellors' committee have been in consultation with regard to this matter, but I am afraid that the legal bodies of the Universities have no knowledge of it. Their governing bodies have not met since these proposals were made and they have had no opportunity of being consulted. I think it is important that any body in a university or college in which authority is vested, should be the body to make the application for the Order-in-Council. I hope the Attorney-General will be good enough to make the position on this point clear. The Universities and colleges, I feel sure, will welcome the opportunity given by this Clause for having better working conditions which would not be possible if such facilities were not provided.

4.36 p.m.

Mr. R. C. Morrison

I wish to say a few words on the proposed Amendment dealing with the nominating body being consulted. The membership is determined by groups of local authorities which means that when a member is elected by a group of local authorities he more or less automatically becomes a member for life. Many of the members are old people, and tend to lose contact with the people who have elected them. If action is taken without any reference to the nominating authorities I think trouble will ensue. In fairness, I would like to mention the instance which was given, where this has not taken place and will not take place. An example was given of the Lea Conservancy Board, in connection with which, we were told, it would not be allowed without the nominating authorities being consulted. I am not a member of the Lea Conservancy Board, but I believe within the last seven days a communication was sent to all the local authorities in that area asking for their comments as to what their attitude would be with regard to the matters which we are discussing this afternoon. At the same time, there may be other authorities who might not take the attitude which was taken by the Lea Conservancy Board, and they might be inclined to make these decisions without consulting the nominating authorities.

4.38 p.m.

Sir Stanley Reed

I would like to ask the Attorney-General if he would give careful consideration to the points which have been made with regard to including the Electricity Commissioners within the scope of this Bill. Apart from the reasons given by the speakers for the Opposition, there are very strong arguments against the proposal as it stands. There is the question whether the post of chairman of the Commissioners is a job requiring the services of a full-time man and also the question who is to be responsible for the administration of the Electricity Commissioners in this period of what I may call semi-suspended chairmanship. Is it to be an occasional Commissioner, or is it to be a chairman who may say, "I could not give any attention to that matter because I was very busy with shipping"? I hope the Attorney-General will weigh this matter, because those who are acquainted with the Electricity (Supply) Act know that the Electricity Commissioners are appointed on a wise principle. They are appointed to represent the three major interests concerned—engineering, administration and the commercial side. If you take out one of those three you will seriously disturb the wise balance which was laid down for the administration of this great corporation. For those reasons I ask the Attorney-General to give that matter his earnest consideration and not to press us to oppose him on a point where we would rather not.

4.40 p.m.

Mr. G. A. Morrison

I wish to say one word in support of the plea made by the Member for the English Universities (Mr. Harvey) with regard to Clause 3, as to the body by whom the application is to be made. I would point out that the vice-chancellors' committee to which he referred is an informal, and not an official body.

4.41 p.m.

The Attorney-General

I will deal briefly with the points which have been made. I fully appreciate the point which was made by the hon. Gentleman opposite with regard to the Orders under Clause 1 being laid before Parliament. I will consider this and consult with my Noble Friend the Lord President. His second point dealt with consultation under Clause 2 (1, a). Undoubtedly consultation will take place; there is a vast number of miscellaneous bodies and it may be that in some cases there would be a difficulty in getting the electors, but that, obviously, would not apply where there are nominations by local authorities. With regard to the Electricity Commissioners, the points to which he referred are not points with which I can deal, certainly not this afternoon, beyond pointing out that under the original Act Parliament contemplated the possibility of the appointment of part-time commissioners. The original Act provides that there shall be three whole-time commissioners and there could be two part-time commissioners; Parliament, in that Act, contemplated the possibilities of part-time commissioners, though they have not, in fact, been appointed in the past.

4.43 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I think it is essential to point out that the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1919, lays down that there shall be three whole-time commissioners. For some time past the Commission have been working with that number and no more— no part-time or whole-time people to make up the maximum required. It is now proposed to reduce them to two whole-time commissioners neither of whom will be chairman of the commissioners, as I understand the suggestion. The chairman will, in fact, be a part-time commissioner with the greater part of his time given to this enormously important position of Director-General of Shipping. The right hon. Gentleman should bring to the notice of the Minister of Transport the difficulties that are inevitably bound to arise if you have only two existing commissioners actually functioning. It is desirable that there shall be a commissioner with the wide and general experience in public administration which so eminently qualifies Sir Cyril Herbert. The commissioners should be reinforced by some other person who is capable of carrying on that work. Undoubtedly an Amendment will have to be put down to raise this issue, and the right hon. Gentleman must realise that we attach the utmost importance to this point.

Mr. Harvey

Would the right hon. Gentleman mind answering the point which I made?

The Attorney-General

I must apologise to the hon. Gentleman for omitting to deal with his point. "On behalf of" is, I should have thought, a conveniently wide term. The application must be approved by the University or college, but the words may avoid technical difficulties as to form. I will, however, consider the suggestions which were made by the hon. Gentleman.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House for To-morrow.—[Captain Duģdale.]