HC Deb 18 December 1941 vol 376 cc2045-8
The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Dennis Herbert)

I beg to move, That the Grand Union Canal Company be relieved from the obligation to promote not later than the Session of 1946 a Bill to consolidate the Acts relating to the several parts of their undertaking and the obligation to promote not later than the Session of 1944 an Amending Bill with a view to facilitating the task of consolidation, being obligations to which the Company are subject by virtue of a promise given in the proceedings before the Committee to which the Regent's Canal and Dock Company (Grand Junction Canal Purchase) Bill was referred in the year 1928 as varied by resolutions passed by this House on the 12th day of July, 1932, the 27th day of July, 1937, and the 27th day of June, 1940. This is rather an unusual form of Motion, and, therefore, I am obliged to say a word about it. It is asking the House to release the Grand Union Canal Company from an obligation which they entered into as a Parliamentary undertaking to introduce a Bill to consolidate their numerous Acts. It is rather a long story, because the original undertaking was given as long ago as 1928, and the House from time to time has extended the time for introducing that Bill. Latterly there was added an undertaking to introduce an amending Bill before introducing a consolidating Bill. In normal times I should have expected to have put the matter down for debate, and I can make no complaint if the House wishes me to do so now, but I venture to hope that in these days the House will probably find it convenient to pass this Motion in the few minutes which are available for unopposed Private Business. The reasons why the request is made depend to some extent on the war situation, but not entirely so. I have gone into the matter very carefully with my official adviser. I required a statement from the undertaking as to the case for the request, and I afterwards had an interview with the Parliamentary agent, the solicitor and the secretary of the company. I am fully satisfied that it is quite impracticable for this to be done, at any rate during the war period. I am satisfied also, though there might be differences of opinion on it, that it will really be impracticable for them to do it even after the war.

If I may put the main reason very shortly, it is that the undertaking has grown so enormously by reason of other amalgamations that the original idea of consolidating their Acts, which looked a fairly simple matter, has grown to be something very much bigger. The result of that is that they are asking, not for an extension, but to be released from this obligation. I can give the House the most absolute assurance that if they pass this Motion, they will not—that goes almost as a matter of course—be prejudiced in any way as far as Parliament or the power of this House after the war is concerned to deal with the matter if they think it desirable and necessary to take up the whole of that much neglected business of the waterways of this country. That being the case, if hon. Members will bear that in mind, I venture to hope that they will release the company from their obligation. By doing so, they will save the company a considerable amount of expenditure, trouble and work which must be continued from year to year so long as they are under this obligation.

In the meantime, their system of waterways is doing very valuable national work at the present time, but not, I am afraid, so good or so efficient as it might have been if we had paid more attention to the canals in the past. At any rate, they are working to their full capacity, and it may interest the House to know, although it is rather a sad thing to have to say, that this undertaking has not for several years past been making any profits. Some years ago, it is true, they were able to pay a small dividend, but for some years past they have not been able to pay even their preference dividend. Therefore, there is no case of doing anything to enable anything like illegitimate or excessive profits to be made. It is, I think, clearly to the advantage of the country generally that this undertaking should be free from a hampering obligation. It will not prejudice Parliament in their powers to deal with this matter after the war if they may desire to do so.

Mr. Thorne (Plaistow)

The Union Canal Company carry a great deal of merchandise. Do I understand that this Motion is for the purpose of helping them in that direction?

The Chairman of Ways and Means

It is to help them in that direction to this extent, that so long as they are under this obligation they have to continue a certain amount of work with a view ultimately to carrying out the obligation and that means the employment of a larger staff and the expenditure of money.

Mr. Tinker (Leigh)

I should like to ask the Chairman of Ways and Means to give an assurance that this Motion does not mean shelving the whole business for all time and that it is merely a war emergency. In matters like this we are willing to do a lot of things because a war is on, but we do not want the position to be taken advantage of by somebody saying, "You passed certain things during that period, and they cannot be raised again on account of Parliamentary procedure." I want to protect our rights for the future, and when the war is over I take it that there will be full opportunity to raise this question again if we so desire.

Mr. Mander (Wolverhampton, East)

The Chairman of Ways and Means made it clear that this was a permanent abandonment by the company of their obligation. I do not follow why a Motion cannot be passed dealing with the war period. The Chairman of Ways and Means indicated that while he held one view, it may be possible to hold a different view as to what is desirable after the war. For that reason I do not understand why for the post-war period the obligation could not be left open.

Mr. Ammon (Camberwell, North)

While I do not intend to oppose the Motion, I think that we should enter a caveat, because, if the legislation be so complicated that it is difficult to undertake it, what are the ordinary public to do in the matter? It rather seems that the company are taking advantage of the war in order to avoid an obligation that has been placed upon them and that they have no wish to spend the money. I think that we are going to get a rather bad deal out of it, and we should enter a caveat so that in post-war conditions this matter can be taken up again with perfect fairness.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

Although this is a necessary measure now, many of us feel, looking at it from the point of view of post-war conditions, that we should not do anything which may in other cases and for other purposes be used as a precedent after the war.

Mr. Douglas (Battersea, North)

I understand that the proposal is to relieve the company of all obligations—

Mr. Mander

On a point of Order. May I ask whether it is possible for this Debate to consume the whole of Question time?

Mr. Speaker

This Debate can only last till a quarter of an hour after the meeting of the House.

Mr. Douglas

It is proposed to relieve this Company of the obligation for all time to consolidate their Acts. I suggest that the proper course at the moment is to suspend the obligation for a period of years and to let it be considered again after the war. If this legislation is so complicated that, as the Chairman of Ways and Means has said, it is almost impossible for the Company to prepare a consolidating Act, how is the general public to understand it, and how is the public to be protected?

It being the hour appointed for the conclusion of unopposed Private Business, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon the next Sitting Day.