HC Deb 15 November 1946 vol 430 cc475-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Captain Michael Stewart.]

3.59 P.m.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

I desire to raise this afternoon, as I have already given notice, the refusal of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel and Power to disclose to this House the salaries to be paid to members of Divisional Coal Boards. The brief history of the matter will, I apprehend, make it perfectly clear that this refusal was deliberate and calculated, and not, as one might sometimes have suspected of the right hon. Gentleman, the result of a fit of petulance. The question was first raised with the right hon. Gentleman in one of those agreeable Press conferences which he conducted during the summer. He then, unquestionably within his rights, refused to answer the question. On 8th October, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the New Forest and Christ-church (Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre) put a written Question to the right hon. Gentleman. Perhaps I might refresh the memory of the House by giving an extract from the somewhat lengthy reply which the right hon. Gentleman was good enough to make.

The right hon. Gentleman, in his written reply, said this: These Divisional Boards are not statutory bodies and are not appointed by me. They are appointed by the National Coal Board as part of its managerial staff. He goes on to say a little lower down the column: I have no intention of giving general directions on such matters as the salaries the Board should pay to their staff, which under the Act is essentially a matter for them to decide themselves."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th October, 1946; Vol. 427, c. 25.] On 29th October I put a Question to the right hon. Gentleman, and in his first reply he was good enough to refer me to the answer to the Question—

It being Four 0'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Michael Stewart.]

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

He was good enough to refer me to the answer to the Question he had given my hon. and gallant Friend. When I pressed him, by way of supplementary question—perhaps, I should give the exact words. I asked him: Does that answer mean that the right hon Gentleman is not prepared to give the figures? The right hon. Gentleman replied: That,is precisely what it means."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th October, 1946; Vol. 428, c. 439.] It does appear from the right hon. Gentleman's written reply, that he was under some misapprehension as to what he was asked. He was not asked to give directions to the Board. I may say that hon. Members on this side of the House are sufficiently apprehensive already as to the coal situation, that they do not desire to make that worse by encouraging the right hon. Gentleman to interfere any further than he does. What the right hon. Gentleman was asked to do was quite a different matter. He was asked to give the House of Commons information as to the remuneration paid to certain highly placed sections of the staff of the Coal Board.

It seems to me, and to certain of my hon. Friends that the plainly calculated refusal of the right hon. Gentleman to give that information does raise a question of fundamental principle, which is of importance, not only with regard to the coal industry, but to any other industry which may have the misfortune to suffer nationalisation in the future. The request was for information with respect to the remuneration of a section of the staff in a nationalised industry. As I understand it, one of the major objects of nationalisation is to transfer responsibility from private to public hands in respect of an important industry. At no inconsiderable cost, this country is in process of acquiring the coal industry. It is perfectly proper, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, to leave the details of management in the hands of the Coal Board, but, none the less, once an industry has been nationalised, or is in an advanced stage towards nationalisation—because I appreciate that the vesting date is not yet—once that is so, then the House and the Minister concerned acquire a very definite responsibility towards the country. If they do not accept that responsibility, then I completely fail to perceive the object of nationalisation at all. But they have taken—the right hon. Gentleman has taken—this industry from private hands, and made it into a public responsibility.

If the House of Commons is not to be furnished with these facts, or any material facts which it desires with reference to this industry, then there is nobody else who is in a position to discover them. After all, in the case of private industry, it is a legitimate and often exercised right to ask questions at general or annual meetings. So far as the Coal Board is concerned there are no shareholders, in the ordinary sense of the term, to ask those questions. The only place in which they can be asked is the House of Commons, and I do submit that the House of Commons is entitled, if it wishes—and any hon. Member of this House is entitled, if he wishes—to be informed on the vastly important subject of the rates of remuneration, whether they be the rates of remuneration of highly distinguished gentlemen on the Coal Boards, or the rates of remuneration to be paid to the miners at the coal face. I utterly fail to accept the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman that he is entitled to deny this information to the House of Commons in respect of a nationalised industry.

There is another aspect of this matter which is of importance, though I do not want to take up the time of the House for very long because I am sure it is the wish of the House to hear the right hon. Gentleman on this subject. All hon. Members on both sides are perfectly well aware of the grave apprehension which exists in the country with respect to the working of this industry. All hon. Members have a responsibility now to their constituents in this connection, and it is obviously impossible for hon. Members to exercise that responsibility unless the Minister concerned will give them the facts. Unless the Minister gives them the facts, hon. Members and the public outside will be left in very considerable doubt on this important matter, and I submit that that is a wholly undesirable and wholly undemocratic state of affairs. Further, it is only too apparent, with the tendency of the policy of this Government, that the scope of official patronage, direct or indirect, is being enormously extended. There have been criticisms, widespread criticisms by no means confined to one section of the community, of certain of these appointments. There has been genuine disquiet—I do not want to indulge in personalities—about these appointments, and there have certainly been criticisms of them by hon. Members opposite as well as on this side.

In face of this enormous extension of patronage, and in face of these by no means manifestly obvious appointments, there is a feeling of disquiet as to whether there are not elements of jobbery taking place. The only answer to apprehensions of that sort is the clear and blinding light of full publicity, because where there is full publicity, where the facts are known to the House of Commons and to the country, it is impossible for ill-founded suspicion to flourish. The denial of facts and information not unjustifiably does give rise to rumours and apprehensions of every sort. It lies in the power of the right hon. Gentleman by full, frank and fearless disclosure of the facts to kill a great many of these rumours and apprehensions at birth.

I will conclude by asking the right hon. Gentleman three specific questions, and I know him well enough to know that he is perfectly capable of answering them if he wishes. The questions are these: First, does the right hon. Gentleman know what the salary or remuneration of these gentlemen is? Second, if the right hon. Gentleman does not know, does he agree that Subsection (4) of Section 3 of the Coal Industry (Nationalisation) Act gives him full authority to compel the Coal Board to give him that information? The third question is, what conceivable public harm could be done by the right hon. Gentleman giving the House of Commons the facts with regard to these appointments?

4.10. p.m.

The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Shinwell)

It was obvious not long after the hon. Member began to speak that there was no substance in his case. That being so, he embarked on a disquisition on the subject of jobbery, and in fact he went so far as to suggest that there was an element of jobbery in the appointment of persons on the regional coal boards. That may be the normal procedure for a barrister to adopt.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is not deliberately distorting what I said. What I said, and said more than once, was that there was widespread apprehension of jobbery which could be dissipated if he would tell the House the facts. That is quite a different matter, and the right hon. Gentleman knows it.

Mr. Shinwell

That may be the normal procedure for a barrister to adopt, but there is no substance whatever in the hon. Member's accusation. If the hon. Member really believes in what he says, the very least he can do is to produce some evidence. He has no such evidence. Then he informs the House that there is widespread apprehension on this subject of patronage, presumably associated with the appointments in connection with the National Coal Board. Obviously, if there existed widespread apprehensions on this subject, I would have heard something about the matter at my Department, but so far as I am aware no single communication has come to us, and not a single representation has been made at any time indicating that there has been any apprehension. I suggest that the apprehension is confined to the hon. Member himself. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] In that case hon. Members opposite have suddenly discovered their apprehensions, which apparently did not exist before. If hon. Members opposite really believe that there is substance in the allegation that there is jobbery in connection with the appointments of the National Coal Board, it was their bounden duty to raise this important and vital subject, not on the Adjournment, but as a challenge to the Government. No such attempt has been made. I repudiate most emphatically the amazing allegation that there is anything in the nature of jobbery associated with this matter. Moreover, I can tell hon. Members that so far as the Ministry of Fuel and Power is concerned, and for my own part, we have nothing whatever to do with these appointments. We have appointed the National Coal Board in accordance with the provisions of the Act of Parliament. That is a Statutory body, but apart from the proposed consumer councils, no other statutory body can be appointed by the Minister of Fuel and Power. The regional coal boards, created by the National Coal Board, are non-statutory bodies. They are part and parcel of the normal administration, and no one knows that better than the hon. Member himself, who was a Member of the Standing Committee and took part in the discussions on this subject.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

No one is disputing it.

Mr. Shinwell

The hon. Member does not dispute it, and so one point is clear—the Minister of Fuel and Power is not responsible for these appointments. Therefore, if he has no responsibility for these appointments and has nothing whatever to do with these appointments, there can be no question of jobbery so far as the Minister of Fuel and Power is concerned. I hope that that is clearly understood.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

No one said that there was.

Mr. Shinwell

That may be the hon. Member's line of argument, and it can be responded to any time he likes, but I want to deal with the facts of the situation, as apparently they are not fully known by hon. Members. The hon. Member, I understand, wants information about the remuneration of members of the Divisional Coal Boards, and he went so far as to say that he thought hon. Members were entitled to information, not only about remuneration of members of the Divisional Coal Boards, but on the salaries of all members of the staff. That is most surprising, because, in making that demand, we are "elevating," if I may use that expression, the administration of the National Coal Board to that of the Civil Service. That is precisely what hon. Members on the other side were anxious to prevent. If any evidence is required on that head, I shall be happy to furnish it.

I observed that just before this Debate began the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank), who knows a great deal about this matter, because he led the Opposition in Standing Committee, departed from the scene. I do not know whether that was deliberate. I wonder if it was? At any rate, in his absence, I must quote him. On the fifth day of the Standing Committee this is what the right hon. Gentleman said. On this very point of whether there should be Treasury control of the salaries of members of the Divisional Boards, which, it was pointed out, were likely to be appointed, and also on the question of the salaries of the staff. He said: The Treasury has at the back of its mind the general level in the Civil Service, and there may be some who still hanker with the idea that this industry is going to be a semi-Civil Service affair. I hope that when the Bill emerges from this Committee it will be as far removed as possible from that. We want Parliament to have the final say, but we do not want the Civil Service atmosphere to be running all through it. If you start with approval for salaries being required from the Treasury you will be giving a pointer in that direction."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C; 26th February, 1946, col. 211.] To what did that relate? It related, in the first instance, to the question of salaries for the National Coal Board itself. There was some doubt whether it was desirable, in all the circumstances, as this was to be a semi-independent and autonomous body operating on behalf of the State, for the Treasury to fix the salaries or, at any rate, to give their approval to the salaries to be paid, and whether the matter should be one of public comment. I pointed out that it was very desirable, in all the circumstances, as this was a very important and influential body operating as an instrument of the State, that the Treasury should have some say in the fixing of salaries, and the House and the public should be duly informed. I was not prepared to go beyond that. I made the position perfectly clear to hon. Members on the Standing Committee. Let us see exactly where we stand in this matter. Why is it that the hon. Member wants this information? Is it because he is concerned about the nature of the appointments, about the personnel on the Divisional Coal Board? He mentioned Sir Ben Smith.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter


Mr. Shinwell

Well, someone mentioned him earlier on. I think it was the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite)—a very strange coincidence. He mentioned the subject of these divisional boards and the appointment of Sir Ben Smith and others. There is a good deal of comment about Sir Ben Smith and others being appointed to these boards. It is assumed that I, as Minister of Fuel and Power, have made all these appointments. I have done nothing of the sort. I have never been consulted about these appointments, and I do not wish to be consulted about them. I have nothing to do with the fixing of salaries, and I have no desire to be consulted about the fixing of salaries; and I will tell hon. Members why. Having entrusted the task of administering the coal industry to the National Coal Board, I do not desire to interfere in the administration at all.

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

I think perhaps I might make the position a little clearer. Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the Public Accounts Committee will be given this information and if so what is the objection to giving it to the House?

Mr. Shinwell

If the hon. Member had waited for a moment I would have informed him on that point. I shall do so now. Hon. Members who are acquainted with the provisions of the Measure must be aware that the National Coal Board must present their annual accounts to the Ministry; indeed, they are ordered to do so by Statute. Then the accounts will go before the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee can at any time ask for information on any item connected with those accounts. That is traditional and no one can take exception to It. When we come to consider the annual report of the National Coal Board's transactions, as we may in due course, hon. Members may wish for information about sums expended on salaries. I cannot say at this stage what I would be prepared to say if I were then in the position of Minister of Fuel and Power. But I think I could content myself with giving a global figure and refusing to disclose the salary of each person, regarding the Coal Board as a commercial organisation and putting it in the same category as a commercial organisation. I have yet to learn that shareholders in a commercial concern are furnished with information as to the salaries of every person in the organisation.

Sir J. Mellor


Mr. Shinwell

I think the hon. Member has interrupted already and I have replied to him. As this is a Debate on the Adjournment I think hon. Members should content themselves with the speech that has been made and had better listen to the reply. As I say, there has been quite a good deal of misunderstanding about the question of who is responsible for these appointments. I want to make it clear that we are not responsible for the appointments but we leave them to the National Coal Board. We must trust the Board.

Finally, I should like to say that throughout the Debates of the Standing Committee we were advised by hon. Members opposite not to interfere unduly in the administration of the National Coal Board. We were advised to give them a free hand, and indeed it was suggested that the Minister might be too dictatorial, might be inclined to interfere every day in the administration and in the details of administration. I was adjured not to do anything of the sort by hon. Members opposite, and now, when I inform hon. Members that I am carrying out their instructions almost to the letter, refusing to interfere in the detailed administration for which the Board is responsible and for which the Board was appointed, I am told that hon. Members are entitled to the details of remuneration and all the rest of it.

There is another point to which the hon. Member referred. He seemed to indicate—and I hope I do not misinterpret what he said—that we are entitled to know all about the wages of miners. Does the hon. Member really suggest that this should be a platform for discussing wages and salaries? Has the House of Commons come to this? That was never accepted as regards private enterprise undertakings, and as far as I am aware, but speaking subject to correction, it does not apply to the British Broadcasting Corporation, to the Post Office, to the London Passenger Transport Board, or to any other statutory board. There is a further reason before I sit down that I advance in support of my contention that this is not a matter for me to interfere with, and that is that in the selection of personnel for these Divisional Coal Boards there is great variety. In the very nature of the case it must be so for we are not dealing with the same districts. Kent is different from Scotland, Durham from South Wales, and there must be differentiation in the kind of technical and admin- istrative ability required for the respective districts.

Obviously, in those circumstances any kind of information provided about salaries of the chairman or other persons would be misleading. It might be admitted that some people are receiving higher salaries than others, questions would be put as to the reasons why, and there would be great difficulty all round. Moreover, I am going to confess to the House that, as I have said before—I said it during the Second Reading Debate and during the Standing Committee I repeated it over and over again—we are conducting an experiment, and in those circumstances we have to feel our way and cannot have the Coal Board "mucked about" with, interfered with, and placed in a position which indicates some lack of confidence at the very beginning of this great experiment. I want to give the Coal Board a chance, and I hope hon. Members are in a like situation. We have to give the Coal Board that chance not so much in the interests of the Board itself but in the interests of the nation because the coal problem, as the hon. Member stated is bound up with the life of the whole nation. Any time hon. Members want another Debate on the coal problem all they have to do is to approach their leader, and he can make representations to the Lord President of the Council in that sense. If hon. Members want another Debate I am ready for it.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Before the right hon. Gentleman sits down will he answer the question which, he will recollect, I put to him as to whether he is not in possession of, or in a position easily to obtain, the figures which he has again refused to give to the House of Commons?

Mr. Shinwell

My answer is that I have not asked the National Coal Board for those figures, and I do not intend to do so.

Mr. Assheton (City of London)

Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to apply to the working of the Coal Board the provisions which will be provided in the Bill to implement the Cohen Committee's Report?

Mr. Shinwell

I want to see the whole of the provisions of the Cohen Committee Report before me and examine them carefully before I give an answer to that question.

4.27 p.m.

Mr. Marlowe (Brighton)

I have noticed that some of the coal which the right hon. Gentleman has been producing lately gives out nothing but smoke, and that is exactly what he has done in the speech he has just made. He has taken cover behind a smoke screen and has completely failed to address his mind to the specific question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). The question is not to be dealt with in. the way the right hon. Gentleman has chosen. He has failed to give his mind to the question whether he can acquire this information and, if he can, why he should not give it to the House. That is the very simple issue. I noticed that the right hon. Gentleman spent seven minutes of his speech talking about jobbery, which had nothing to do with the question.

Mr. Shinwell

The question of jobbery was raised by the hon. Gentleman opposite.

Mr. Marlowe

And the right hon. Gentleman was very grateful for the opening which allowed him to lead away into an irrelevant aspect of the problem. The right hon. Gentleman gave the second half of his speech entirely to saying that he did not want, as he put it, "to muck about or interfere with" the Coal Board. No one is asking him to do so, and this question is not related to that. It is merely asking for information, and no suggestion has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon-Thames that the right hon. Gentleman should interfere in the appointments or that he should control the divisional or regional Boards in any way. What is asked is that when these appointments are made by the Coal Board the House should be told how much the officials receive. It is an ironical thing that for years the party to which the right hon. Gentleman belonged has been advocating nationalisation largely on the grounds of the great differentiation between rates of remuneration paid to workers and those paid to the bosses. The only difference I can see is that whereas under the old system one knew how much the bosses got one only knows now what the workers get and not what the bosses get. The right hon. Gentleman is dealing with public money and the public has the: right to know how its money is being spent. I urge him to think this matter over again and to tell the public what he is doing with their money.

Sir J. Mellor

I think that the fact that. as the Minister has admitted, this information will have to be given to the Public Accounts Committee if asked for, and that the Public Accounts Committee will have the right to publish it, shows that the House should have it when the House asks for it. The difficulty about the Public Accounts Committee is that they do not report—

It being Half-past Four o'Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.