HC Deb 10 July 1946 vol 425 cc418-21

Lords Amendment: In page 10, line 23, after "section," insert: and being provisions which were entered into on or after the first day of August, nineteen hundred and forty-five, or which have been varied after that date.

Mr. Shinwell

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

This is a rather more substantial Amendment and, perhaps, I may be permitted a word of explanation. As hon. Members who were on the Committee are aware, the question of contracts entered into before August, 1945, was under discussion, and the point emerged, arising from the original provisions of the Clause, as to whether contracts entered into without due prudence should be acceptable to the National Coal Board. It was my opinion that that was a very desirable provision, but, as a result of discussions that have ensued since the Committee Stage, it was thought desirable to modify the contracts provisions; and so the proposal to bring into discussion the contracts preceding August, 1945, in the light of whether or not they were entered into prudently, is now excluded, and it is only those contracts entered into after August, 1945, which are to receive consideration.

Major Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Ecclesall)

I wish to support this Amendment with the leave of the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) because indicates a very important change of policy. The impression before given to the country, to servants in the coal industry with long-standing contracts, which were made before August, 1945, was that the whole stability of their lives was to be upset by the policy of the Government, because if their contracts were proved not "reasonably necessary," irrespective of whether they were "prudent" or not, the Coal Board could turn them out into the street, so that they would be left only with the protection of the colliery companies, who were going out of business. We did stress this, and I want publicity to be given to this change, so that that feeling in the country can be put right.

The Attorney-General, who, I am sorry to see, is not here—for it was he who dealt with the matter—said that there might be one or two "rotten" contracts, and that the whole stability of the necessary contracts would be put in jeopardy by this Amendment. In the Committee on 13th March he said the Government had taken powers to see that that was not so. This caused a good deal of dismay. I have met people in the country who have mentioned this point to me. I do hope note will be taken of this change of policy. Even on Third Reading the learned Attorney still persisted that this was what he called "misconceived." I think a great deal of delay could have been saved if the Government, from the very beginning, had appreciated the point. The only point I wish to stress now is, that publicity should be given to the fact that these people are to have security of tenure.

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon, South)

I welcome this Amendment because it carries out a proposal which I made in the Standing Committee, and about which the learned Attorney-General was particularly scathing on behalf of the Government. There has been a considerable change of view, and a change of view for the better. I think that there is one aspect that ought, perhaps, to be mentioned even at this late stage. As the Bill originally came before this Home, the Government were going to make a very good thing out of this provision. If, in fact, a ban on the assets of the mining industry were made, having regard to the fact that those assets might be affected by a number of very bad contracts, they were, in fact, going to pay less for the assets they were taking over by reason of the bad contracts, and then, on top of that, they were reserving to themselves the right to repudiate those contracts, and so save themselves that amount of money a second time. So that all they are doing here is nothing more than a belated act of justice.

There is one small drafting point which, I think, should be mentioned at this stage. As the Bill will stand after this Amendment, the whole of this Clause, or certainly Subsection (2), will only be applicable to contracts made on or after the 1st day of August, 1945. I see that in Subsection (3) those words reappear: In the case of a provision for the rendering of personal services or for the giving of consideration therefore being a provision which was entered into on or after the first day of August, nineteen hundred and forty-five, or which has been varied after that date. … It can only be such provision after this Amendment is made to the earlier Subsection, and I do not see how those words can have any operative effect at all. It may be that they will do nothing but confuse the issue, and lead to some possible misinterpretation of intentions of Parliament. I do not know what the Government think, but I suggest that some further Amendment be made.

Mr. H. Macmillan

Would the right hon. Gentleman look at this drafting point and see whether it requires treatment?

Mr. Shinwell

I think that the hon. Member for South Hendon (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) misunderstands the point of the provision to which he has referred. This relates to "personal services." He will remember that there was a very long discussion in Committee when it was argued at great length that in the case of land contracts there should be no reference to arbitration unless the Minister consented; in the other case the matter does not arise.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I am not disputing the principle. I was trying to prove that Subsection (3) can only apply to contracts made after a particular date, and that it is therefore otiose for the date to be put in again.

Mr. Shinwell

All I can say is that we have gone through the Bill with a fine-tooth comb, and that we are satisfied it is in order.

Mr. H. Macmillan

On the broad issue, this is a matter of very deep importance. Once again it is a complete reversal of the attitude taken up by the right hon. Gentleman and by the Attorney-General, with varying degrees of truculence, throughout the whole of our discussions. Now that they are standing in white sheets, let us at least give them the credit for that drapery. Not only did they resist it with this arrogant air of omniscience, which they have taken up throughout the whole of our discussion in Committee and on the Report stage, but they have tried to obstruct our friends in another place, to resist it, and in Committee their representatives did resist it. But the weight of argument of noble Lords, and even of learned noble Lords, was too much even for the Chancellor. I am glad that this monstrous provision in the Bill has now been abandoned by universal consent; it marks a triumph for the ordinary rules of common fair play and equity.