HC Deb 10 July 1946 vol 425 cc402-9

Lords Amendment: In page I, line 17, at end, insert: in all respects, including the avoidance of any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Shinwell

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

There was no question of the National Coal Board showing undue preference, but the point required clarification and we agreed to this Amendment. As regards the earlier observations of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite, I can only say that we shall be everlastingly grateful.

Mr. Harold Macmillan (Bromley)

The House will admire the skill and reticence with which the right hon. Gentleman has skated over this particularly thin ice as we begin our afternoon's proceedings. He tells us that this is in the nature of a clarifying, or almost drafting, Amendment to make clear what was always inherent in the purpose of the Bill. Those who had not the opportunity of being on the Standing Committee or have not attended the Report stage of the Bill would hardly realise the long, bitter and sometimes acrimonious discussions that we had on this topic. This question of discrimination was one of the major issues discussed and debated at length in Committee, and, at every point, the right hon. Gentleman, in varying moods, sometimes, with his well-known light humour, and, sometimes, in his more bitter and sarcastic manner, resisted every attempt of my hon. Friends and myself to introduce this conception that there should not be discrimination between similar classes of users. Fortunately, what we were unable to achieve has been achieved in another place. Whether from natural traditionalism, which is part of the old Labour movement, or from greater deference to another place, those words which, when they came from common mouth, fell despised were, when they came from noble lips, gladly received.

Having carefully read the speeches of what the right hon. Gentleman calls his "representatives in another place," I cannot but rejoice at the result of the discussion on this matter. I do not know whether the Lord Chancellor would particularly like to be called the "representative" of the Minister of Fuel and Power, who treats him as a kind of trade union delegate. In more ancient days the Lord Chancellor was regarded as quite an important officer of State. Of course, he is well known to be a willing worker in many and varying causes, from time to time, but, in any case, having carefully read what he said in the course of the discussions on this point, I feel that he tried to meet the very substantial and important points which lay behind the discrimination argument and did so with great good sense and with great moderation. As I understand it, from what he said, and what the Minister, no doubt, would tell us if he were pressed, the words make it clear that, while different prices can be quoted to different classes of users—it might be decided in the national interest to quote a lower price to steel works as a whole than, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer instanced, for dog-racing tracks—there should not be discrimination between users of the same class. It is a well-known fact that, in all forms of statutory companies or boards, the discrimination clause allows different rates to be charged for different classes of service. That is inherent, for example in the railway rate system; it lies at the very root of it, but it prevents discriminatory charges to users within the same category. As I understand it, these words, when accepted and passed by this House, will have this effect.

This being one of the major issues upon which we challenged the Government and upon which the Government were most obstinate and recalcitrant, it is a great satisfaction to us to see that the Government have now met the argument which is, in logic, irresistible. Although, as I say, the right hon. Gentleman has tried to cover his retreat—as, indeed, any good tactical commander should do—with the minimum of notice, yet I believe that the country will not fail to observe how valuable, as my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) said, has been the work of the Second Chamber, and how wise the right hon. Gentleman would be if he were not always to rely on the big battalions which, for the moment, he can mass in one House of Parliament because, finally, he is unable to get his representatives to put forward arguments which they do not believe to be sound. The weight of argument and the weight of logic sometimes turn his representatives into indifferent servants of his own Ministry, although they are good representatives of the national interest.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

May I ask for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker? Are we going to have a Debate on the functions, good or bad, of another place on every Amendment? Is it not a fact that the House is already tired of the points made by right hon. Gentlemen opposite in their speeches, and could we not discuss the Amendment now before the House, and not what happened in another place? I submit that the House may get a little tired if this repetition continues.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that we shall have such a Debate. Hon. Members have made their points and I have no doubt that they will be reasonable.

Sir Arnold Gridley (Stockport)

In spite of what has just fallen from the lips of the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles), I do not think that those of us who wish, and are entitled, to say a few words should be prevented from doing so. I wish, first, to thank the Minister for agreeing to his noble Friends in another place inserting this Amendment. He will remember that, in Standing Committee, I took a very strong view about the importance of this question of discrimination and undue preference. But the arguments which I and some of my hon. Friends put forward were simply treated with contempt. As a matter of fact, if I remember rightly, the Minister, in rebutting a similar Amendment, said there might be cases in which he would want to discriminate. Therefore, he has obviously had second thoughts, and, as we all know, second thoughts are often better. At any rate we are very glad that the Minister's second thoughts in agreeing with his noble Friends in another place have prevailed.

I would point out that we spent a lot of time in Committee in debating points of this kind—time which would have been much better spent in dealing with other matters, had the Minister exercised his common sense and given way where he could without detriment to the Bill. Parliament is being asked to work extremely hard and for long hours. We are all suffering from legislative indigestion, if I may put it that way, and I doubt whether, under such pressure, Bills such as this are being put on the Statute Book in the best form we are not turning out high-class legislation; we are turning out mass legislation. We have here a very good example of trying to push a most important Measure through Parliament without adequate time or thought being given to the consideration of the thousand and one points which arise when one is dealing with such a great industry as coal.

I felt very strongly about this because, as hon. Members know, all my business life I have had to carry on under Sections of Acts of Parliament which provide just that protection to consumers which this Bill will now provide. But, until it was amended in another place, it did not provide any security for them whatsoever. Having had to pay due regard all my life to the risk of running my neck into the noose, if I discriminated between one consumer and another, and the fact that I might find myself in court as a consequence, it seemed to me unreasonable that the Government, especially as they were going to step into the shoes of the present owners, should not be prepared, readily and unhesitatingly, to accept the responsibility which Parliament had thought it necessary to impose upon suppliers in the case of other quasi-monopolies, or a monopoly such as coal will become when this Bill becomes an Act. There have been cases where representatives of gas or electricity undertakings have been taken to court for such discrimination.

I wish to point the moral here that we have taken up a good deal of time on this Measure which could have been saved, had the Government been more ready, in this House, to give way on points on which they have unhesitatingly given way in another place. I hope that this protest, which I have tried to make in restrained and dignified language, will have some effect on the way in which future Bills will proceed.

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Speaker

I did not give quite a complete answer to the point of Order raised by the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles). I should remind him that there is the Rule with regard to repetition, which, after all, is in my hands, and of which I am aware.

Mr. Jennings (Sheffield, Hallam)

As a member of the Standing Committee, I would like to say how much I appreciate the fact that the Minister, even at this stage, has agreed to the principle involved in this Amendment. He referred to it as a drafting Amendment, but involves a serious major principle. I do not want to repeat what other hon. Members have said. I am taking due notice of what you, Mr. Speaker, have suggested, and I think that if we all do so, we shall get on better and save a lot of time. Let it also be an example to hon. Members opposite. I am glad that the Minister has seen common sense in this matter. It is, as I say, a major principle, and the people outside who will be affected by this Amendment will have reason to be grateful. The Opposition brought this matter forward with strength and consistency, and at last they have been rewarded by its acceptance by the Minister. I hope it will go out to the country that rush tactics, after all, do not make good legislation.

Colonel Clarke (East Grinstead)

I am glad that this Amendment has been accepted, because I feel that the principle involved is one of much greater scope than that which is involved in the Bill itself. In the future, as the Government's programmes mature, we are likely to see private enterprise and the national operation of industries going on side by side. They will be judged by their results. If by control of one of the major raw materials of such industries, such as coal, it is possible for the Government to handicap their opponents—I do not say they would do so, but they might—we will not get a fair field and we will not be able to judge fairly the results of nationalisation. I hope this Amendment will prevent anything of that sort happening, and will give to those who are prepared to watch the progress of nationalisation from an impartial point of view and on its merits, a real opportunity to judge it fairly.

Mr. David Eccles (Chippenham)

I would like the Minister to give us his interpretation of the words in the Amendment: any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage. The Minister will recall that I moved an Amendment about discriminating prices, which was rejected, and that my main point was that two consumers in like circumstances should be charged the same price. If the Minister defines two consumers in like circumstances by saying that they must belong to the same industry, and that otherwise he can discriminate between them, I do not think that will be satisfactory. It is very hard to define what an industry is nowadays. One industry overlaps another, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows very well, and the situation is getting worse. Under Clause 1 of the Bill, the Coal Board itself will carry on a multitude of activities. What we want is an assurance that, merely because the Coal Board is the owner of, let us say, a chemical process, it will not sell coal to that chemical works at a different price from that for which it sells coal to an independent chemical works, although the Coal Board's own works might well be classified as coming within the coal industry and not within the chemical industry. Therefore, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will tell us as fully as he can, what he has in mind when defining two consumers whose rights to have coal sold to them at the same price are protected by these rather vague words.

Lords Amendment: In page 2, line 41, at end, insert: (b) The benefit of the practical knowledge and experience of such persons in the organisation and conduct of the operations in which they are employed.

Mr. Shinwell

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

This Amendment provides an additional objective for the Board. It was represented to us that, although the Board was empowered to seek the establishment of joint machinery for the purposes of considering terms and conditions of employment, and, indeed, all matters pertaining to the welfare of the industry, further consultation might be necessary on the organisation and conduct of the Board's operations, and that individuals might be brought in. It is not very easy to see how this would be possible administratively, but, at any rate, it is worth a trial. It is very desirable that the fullest measure of cooperation and collaboration should emerge and, therefore, we have accepted this proposal.

Mr. H. Macmillan

This Amendment is one which I and my hon. Friends welcome very much. As the right hon. Gentleman has told us, it is of considerable importance. It is within the recollection of the House that when the Bill was first introduced, no reference of any kind was made in it to the position of those engaged in the industry. Under pressure from the Opposition, there was introduced at a late stage in the Committee, a Clause dealing with conciliation in general, and the setting up of appropriate machinery for the consultation of those engaged in the industry. It was a curious and, indeed, remarkable omission from one of the first great nationalising Bills, that from start to finish not the slightest reference was made to the people engaged in operating the pits. I have studied with some care the Debates on this Clause in another place, and I think we are indebted to a very respected figure in our national life, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, who first raised this question. In deference to his views, the representative of the Government in another place moved this Amendment which adds an important duty and one not to be neglected by any means.

As I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree, the ultimate success of industry, whether it falls in the national or the free field, will depend upon happy and harmonious association among those engaged in it. If it can be held up as an objective to be steadily worked towards in either field of industry, that there shall be a close association of the employees, not merely with welfare conditions, not merely with the old conception of wages and welfare, but with the actual operations of industry, that they shall have a right to be consulted, and that the practice of the most modern type of industrial conciliation shall be aimed at in this new nationalised industry, then I think that we shall have gained something of importance. It may be difficult to administer. It may be that it will take time, care and all sorts of experiments before we reach the ideal, but I think that we have done wisely. Frankly, I regret that we on this side of the House did not raise this particular point in these precise words. I think this Amendment is an addition which, no matter what we may think of the wisdom of the machinery we are setting up in the coal industry, hon. Members of all parties are pleased to see in the Bill, so that it shall be among the duties of the new Board to strive for the closest association of the employees generally with the whole sphere of the operations of the Board. It is a question not only of what used to be regarded as the rights of trades unions to be consulted, but of the concern of the employees with the much wider sphere of the general conduct and success of the industry in which they lived and worked, and to which they are, after all, the major contributors. Therefore, I welcome this Amendment. I think the Government have done well to accept it and that it adds a definite advantage to the Bill.