HC Deb 11 July 1946 vol 425 cc621-3
Sir W. Wakefield

I beg to move, in page 34, line 23, after "if", to insert "the Minister is satisfied that.'

In one way this is a comparatively small point, but, on the other hand, it is of substantial importance and we move this Amendment because we wish to ensure that the Minister himself shall be the person responsible for making sure that it has not been practicable, after reasonable inquiry, to ascertain the name or address of any owner, lessee or occupier. We do not want this matter to be left to some official who may have carried out ordinary routine work and then decided that it was not practicable perhaps because a notice may have come back marked "Owner gone away," or something of that kind, so that in fact, a proper inquiry has not been made. It should be the responsibility of the Minister that he himself should be satisfied that all reasonable inquiries have been made. When this point was raised m Committee upstairs the Parliamentary Secretary said that he would have a form of words considered in order to give effect to the principle of this Amendment. We were disappointed to find that there was no Amendment down in the name of the Parliamentary Secretary implementing that undertaking. We hope that as we have put down this Amendment once again, drawn attention to this point and reminded the Parliamentary Secretary of his promise, we may have the Amendment accepted or, if the words are found to be unsuitable, that we may be told why they are not suitable and what form of words would be acceptable for inclusion. I hope we may have this matter put right now in accordance with the undertaking given in Committee.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I beg to second the Amendment.

5.15 p.m.

The Attorney-General

This Amendment is really completely misconceived. I must be careful to avoid any personalities about this matter because I know that hon. Members opposite think they have a complete monopoly of the right to be personal. Very often the thin veneer of courtesy on the other side breaks down and hon. Members pen-nit themselves, as the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) did on the last occasion when we were discussing this Bill, to be grossly offensive. On that occasion the attack was directed against me personally, but I do not worry about that kind of thing. I try to restrict my observations to the subject matter under discussion and not to include extraneous matters. As I have said, this Amendment is completely misconceived. We gave an undertaking that we would look at the Amendment again and further consideration has confirmed us in cur view that this proposal would not even achieve what I venture to think hon. Members probably seek to do.

Ministers cannot act personally in regard to every matter which comes before them, and if that is what this Amendment is intended to achieve—although I do not know whether it is—it is, in my submission, a most undesirable principle to seek to establish in a matter of this kind. On the contrary, one ought to seek to preserve the constitutional position that a Minister acts through the Department over which he presides, and that he is responsible, both legally and politically, for the actions and decisions taken by his Department. One of our most distinguished judges, during a case of which I made a note for the purposes of this Amendment, said the other day: In the administration of Government in this country the functions which are given to Ministers, and constitutionally properly given to Ministers because they are constitutionally responsible, are functions so multifarious that no Minister could ever personally attend to them. Quite obviously no Minister could be expected personally to attend to every matter of this kind, but the real and fundamental fallacy underlying this argument is that the test whether it is practicable or not to ascertain the name and address of an owner ought, surely, to be an objective test and not the subjective one of whether the Minister is satisfied that it is practicable or not. I daresay that Tory Ministers might be very easily satisfied, but others might take a different view.

Mr. Harold Macmillan (Bromley)

Some Ministers are self-satisfied.

The Attorney-General

All Tory Ministers are always very self-satisfied; they may have very little reason for being so, but they are. We really must not attempt to substitute for the fact that a thing is or is not practicable the opinion of a particular Minister who happens to be office at a particular time. If there is a doubt as to whether a particular address could or could not have been ascertained, it should be settled by the courts and not by the ipse dixit of some particular Minister. In view of those considerations I would ask the hon. Gentleman who moved the Amendment whether he is willing to withdraw it?

Mr. Harold Macmillan (Bromley)

After listening to this very interesting Debate, I am bound to say that the arguments of the Attorney-General have persuaded me that it would be wise that we did not press the Amendment. I think the argument he put forward is the right one, that every action by a servant of a Minister is one for which the Minister must automatically be held responsible. It would be a danger to introduce two sorts of procedure, one of which might lead to the view that there were certain things for which the Minister was not responsible. It might increase the bureaucratic and totalitarian tendencies which we all wish to avoid in maintaining our old constitutional position.

If it had not been for the fact that during the Committee stage the Parliamentary Secretary had said that this was a good Amendment and had added very politely that he would find a form of words to give effect to it, I should not have thought this to be an Amendment which should be discussed. The Parliamentary Secretary then stated: I have got the hon. Gentleman's point, and I will have a form of words considered in order to give effect to the principle of his Amendment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 27th June, 1946; C. 560.] I am now persuaded by the greater knowledge of constitutional authority possessed by the Attorney-General that the principle of the Amendment is really bad, and I would ask my hon. Friend not to press it.

Sir W. Wakefield

In view of the explanation which has been given by the Attorney-General, which he was unable to give us in the Committee upstairs, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.