HC Deb 10 July 1946 vol 425 cc441-8

Lords Amendment: In page 32, line 7, at end, insert: being a form which shall distinguish the colliery activities and each of the main ancillary activities of the Board.

Mr. Shinwell

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the Lords Amendment, after "which", to insert: shall conform with the best commercial standards, and which. There was a good deal of discussion about the form of the Board's accounts. My Noble Friend the Lord Chancellor moved his Amendment in another place and indicated that it was possible for words to be inserted to the effect embodied in the Amendment which I have moved. This is undoubtedly an improvement. I say with confidence that throughout our discussion on the Financial Clauses of the Bill I made it abundantly clear, beyond all possibility of doubt that the accounts must conform to the best commercial standards. I insisted upon that all the way through, and I still insist upon it. The National Coal Board must prepare its accounts and present them, and conduct its transactions, in accordance with the highest standards.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. Jennings

I am glad that the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) is in his place. I am going to change from votes of confidence in the Minister and thanks to the Minister. I am going to say that in regard to this Clause he really deserves a vote of censure for not having come to this position before now. The matter was raised in the Committee, where we pressed our fight very hard. The words now on the Paper will at least let the taxpayer know, in a simple and clear form, how the activities of the Coal Board are going on. The Minister has explained that it was his intention to give the fullest accounts but that was not sufficient. The accounts which were to be given were such as he might direct. It is all very well for him to say that he intended to give the fullest information. The words in the Amendment will now let the taxpayer see in a separate form what the coal activities are, [...]apart from ancillary activities, and how this great adventure is getting on. The Minister is very late in the day in, coming to the decision to improve these words. I wish to goodness he had accepted something of this nature in Committee. Then I would not have to say that a vote of censure should be passed on him.

Mr. Stephen (Glasgow, Camlachie)

Will there be a definition of "the best commercial standards"? I am in great doubt as to the exact meaning of the expression. There was some similar division of opinion on a previous Amendment. I wonder whether the Minister would let us have some small explanation. Are these few words being put in in order to please Members of the Opposition above the Gangway? As a lawyer I ask him to look at these words to ensure that they will not be a matter of controversy in the future and lead to the scheme being badly treated in the courts. While the Minister may be well advised to try to conciliate hon. Members Opposite him as much as possible, he ought to make sure that he is adequately protecting the nationalised industry from interference in the courts afterwards, as that might be very harmful.

Mr. H. Macmillan

The Minister is once more skating very lightly over the whole question, and representing it as one of comparatively minor importance, hardly worth occupying so much of the attention of the Committee, of this House, or of another place. While I quite sympathise with his desire to play clown the concession which either he or the Government have willingly or unwillingly made, it is my duty to point out the importance of two points which are now under discussion. They really are two separate points. The Amendment carried in another place is one, and the proposed Amendment to it moved by the Minister is another. It might be more convenient if we discussed them together—although one should keep strictly now to the Amendment to the proposed Amendment.

The Amendment proposed to the Lords Amendment is due to a misapprehension. The Lord Chancellor forgot to include these words on the Third Reading. It had been agreed that these words should be introduced, but by some oversight they were not introduced. What this House is doing is making an Amendment which will be agreeable, as we know beforehand, to the other place because it is merely by an oversight that it was not introduced here. The words introduce an important and substantial point—that the character of the accounts shall be in accordance with what is well known as the best commercial practice; but perhaps the other part of the Amendment, to which the right hon. Gentleman made no allusion, is even more important. While I agree with the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen) that this phrase is rather vague and is difficult of precise interpretation, the other part of the Amendment, which is more important, is very precise. It says: … which shall distinguish the colliery activities and each of the main ancillary activities of the Board. There is no confusion as to what that means, and it is on that issue that we spent hours and hours in Committee, on Report, and right through to the final stage, an Amendment being moved on the Third Reading of the Bill in another place. As originally drafted the Bill said: The Board shall keep proper accounts … in such a form as the Minister may direct. It is true that the Minister told us, as he has repeated today, that it was his intention to give certain instructions on certain lines, but, as Members have said, it is better to have a statutory bird in the hand than many non-statutory promises in the bush. This is just the kind of thing on which Parliament should give precise directions. It is obviously agreed that if would be impossible to make any clear distinction between the operations of the Board as a whole unless there was this precise distinction between the main colliery activities and the main ancillary activities. Though this has been done late, it is nevertheless very welcome. It is a point of vital substance. The proper keeping of the accounts was one of the main arguments of ours throughout the Bill, and we received nothing but vituperation from the other side, and were told that our arguments were foolish and unnecessary. It is a source of great satisfaction to us to underline what the Minister has quite naturally thought right not to emphasise—the vital and important change effected by this Amendment.

Colonel Lancaster

I should like to reinforce what the right hon. Gentleman has said in regard to this Amendment, and in particular to point out that it confers a benefit not only on the country as a whole and those of us who want to concern ourselves in the future with the activities of the Coal Board and the Minister's Department, but also on all those who will be actively concerned in the management of the undertakings. Something more than mere segregation of the activities of the coal, as distinct from the ancillary, undertakings can be read in these words. What is implicit is that these accounts must be kept in such a form that not only the results of regions and areas can be clearly seen but that the element of competition, so far as it can be maintained, is maintained within the industry.

It is said that nationalisation confers nearly every known benefit, but it falls down in regard to the matter of competition. However much we may deprecate the matter of finance coming into this great industry, nevertheless, financial results have been a yardstick by which all sorts of effects have been gained. It has by no means always been an un-satisfactory yardstick. In the past a great deal of interest has been taken not only by the management but by the men themselves in the results obtained in their own pits, seams and districts, and the yardstick was most frequently that of financial results. Other factors came into the matter but the final yardstick was that of financial result. If in the future we can maintain something of the same yardstick by which the element of competition can be kept alive so that managements and men take a pride in their efforts and their results, it will be all for the good. The moment we do anything to reduce that effect, we are compromising the industry. We want to maintain healthy competition in its best form. I suggest to the Minister—we have his sympathy in this matter—that if he can be insistent that these accounts are broken down not only as between ancillary acti- vities and coal activities but into such a form that the regions, districts, areas, pits and seams are kept separate and the men can see the results, he will be doing something for the benefit of the industry and of himself.

Sir A. Gridley

I am glad that the Minister is proposing to amend the Lords Amendment and insert the very important words which are perhaps not fully appreciated by the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen). I think the Minister has in mind in the words "best commercial practice" that he will probably discover that some of the undertakings which he takes over have been accustomed to keeping their accounts and records in accordance with best commercial practice whereas there may be others which have not been quite so up to date——

Mr. William Paling (Dewsbury)

The majority, I should think.

Sir A. Gridley

—and should be brought up to the best commercial practice. Although I do not see on the benches opposite many of the Members who served on the Standing Committee, it is not without advantage to hon. Members opposite—we sometimes learn from them—to discover that what we advocated in Committee and what was at that time refused to us, has now been conceded to us because of second thoughts and the fact that wiser counsels have prevailed. It is to the advantage of the Bill and of this nationalised industry in the future that we should have regularly what the Prime Minister has frequently told us it is our right to have—the fullest information, on whatever matters may come before us for consideration. I hope that in this case we shall be able to look forward to receiving the fullest information as to how this industry is being carried on, successfully or unsuccessfully—something which we could not have been sure of getting if it were left entirely in the hands of the Minister to prescribe what form of accounts should be kept—whether on a national scale, a regional scale, or a unit basis, which I hope will be the case. We have now something of material advantage to the House, to the Bill and the future of the industry.

6.0 p.m.

Mr. Shinwell

It is reasonable that hon. Members should ask that the accounts of the National Coal Board should be sub- ject to the most careful scrutiny. That, of course, was my intention from the outset. Frankly, I thought the form of words which appeared in the original Bill were quite sufficient for the purpose. It will be recalled that provision was made so that the Board should prepare and publish proper accounts. Of course, there may be varying interpretations as to what is meant by "proper," just as there are varying interpretations as to what is meant by "the best commercial standards." It is true that many colliery undertakings in the past conformed to the best commercial standards as they understood them, but there is one thing they did not do, and it is precisely what hon. Gentlemen are now asking should be done. The hon. and gallant Member for Fylde (Colonel Lancaster) goes further; he is not satisfied with the words of the Amendment, which are that the accounts shall be presented in a form: which shall distinguish the colliery activities and each of the main ancillary activities of the Board. He wants accounts for each pit; I am not sure that he did not ask for accounts for each seam. If I may say so—I confess to a poverty of language on this matter—he is going too far. It is amazing that he should have made such a demand What do the colliery undertakings do now, and what have they done in the past? They may conform to the best commercial standards, but they never publish separate accounts which distinguish the colliery activities from the main ancillary activities. For example, if a colliery undertaking owned, in addition to collieries, coke ovens, they did not, in the publication of their accounts, distinguish as between those activities. We are proposing that there should be such differentiation. That is going a long way, and I hope it will satisfy hon. Members. At the same time, I am bound to say that it is very difficult to give a definition of what is meant by "the best commercial standards." All that I can say is this: The National Coal Board will do its best to promote the best commercial standards on the highest possible level, and I hope that will be an example to private enterprise throughout the country.

There is only one further point I want to make. I have been tempted quite a lot this afternoon but I have imposed a very severe restraint upon myself. It has all been bottled up, perhaps for a future occasion, but I must say that I was staggered—not to put too fine a point upon it—when the right hon. Gentleman said that he and his friends had been assailed by vituperation. I thought it was all the other way round. When I reflect on the attacks that were made upon me during the Committee stage, I am bound to say that I think the boot is on the other font. However, perhaps the best thing we can do is to call it a draw, two goals each, and I am quite satisfied. If hon. Members opposite agree not only to the Amendment, but to the Amendment to the Amendment, so that we can have a composite Amendment which satisfies everyone, it is quite agreeable to me.

Colonel Lancaster

May I draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the fact that I did not ask him to do more than he has already done in the way the accounts are to be presented? They bring the thing down to a basis of districts, and that is all I wanted.

Mr. C. Williams

A very interesting point was raised by a previous speaker below the gangway with regard to the definition of the words "conform with the best commercial standards." So far we have had two definitions of them. I hope that my Amendment, which is clearer and more definite, will be the one that stands. I would also like to say that I could not quite understand the Minister's last remark. Apparently there has been a certain amount of backbiting somewhere, but 1 am sure he will never accuse me of that. I want to say a few words on a vital point. It may be perfectly true that in the past certain colliery undertakings have not given separate accounts of their ancillary undertakings, but that is all the more reason why we should congratulate the Minister on having it done now, because it is a matter of great interest to the public. I think it is a pity that the Minister is nearly always looking backwards because, when he looks forward, he is more helpful. Now he has been able to improve the Bill quite a bit thanks to his friends in another place or wherever it may be. I submit, however, that the real bulk of these improvements were made by the hon. Gentlemen round me sitting in Committee, but I congratulate the Minister most sincerely on accepting this Amendment because I feel sure that the public as a whole will be very glad to see precisely what ancillary undertakings cost. Until the public do know something of the expense of running a colliery, it is difficult for them to know that they are getting a wasting asset as far as this industry is concerned. For that reason I would like, as a Back Bencher who has not taken part in any battle, to say that I welcome this quite progressive outlook which the Minister has suddenly adopted.

Amendment to the Lords Amendment agreed to.