HC Deb 19 February 1948 vol 447 cc1458-63
Mr. Walker-Smith

I beg to move, in page 58, line 43, at the end, to insert: and having regard to such considerations as may be specified in the said order. I do not think that this Amendment requires any detailed words of mine to commend itself to the House.

Colonel Ropner (Barkston Ash)

I beg to second the Amendment.

Mr. Bevan

I think it is quite clear what the hon. Member has in mind in moving the Amendment, but I can assure him that his fears are unfounded. Obviously the considerations that led to the making of an order belong to the speech of the Minister proposing the order, and not to the content of the order itself. I do not desire to be perfunctory, but obviously there would be circumstances leading to the making of that order, but it is not usual to insert in the order the description of the circumstances that led to the origin of the order. It is for the Minister to state his reasons to the House. The order itself is the vehicle of the action, and not the vehicle of the reasons.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

I think it is a little hard to expect the House to entrust all its considerations to the speech of the Minister making the order, or laying the order. We have known perfunctory speeches in the House by Ministers, and a perfunctory speech might be made on that occasion also. Here great power is given to the Minister and the Secretary of State. The adjustment to be made is made for the changes in the circumstances of the British Transport Commission. It states that it: shall be such adjustment as may be prescribed by order of the Minister and the Secretary of State, acting jointly. There was, in fact, a slight clash, even on Second Reading, over this point. I thought it was a clever piece of administration, and congratulated the Government on the fact that they would be able to settle their burdens in the future by consultations in the recesses in the Cabinet Room, instead of the more complicated business of bringing these matters into open discussion. The Parliamentary Secretary took me rather sharply to task, and said it was a handful of mud. I had thought that it was a bouquet of flowers, which just goes to show how great a transformation there may be between the primary substance and the final product thereof, and how unwise we are to anticipate any intermediate stages. We should like the intermediate stages not to be cut out here, and we look to the Minister to give us in the order, and also to see in the statute that the Minister should give the House, some account of the circumstances in the order, and not merely to leave it to the speech of the Minister. It is all very well to say that the House can demand explanations from the Minister, but, in fact, the Minister, backed by a powerful majority, may dismiss, in rather airy fashion, requests made by the House. When we are faced with this enormous extension of Crown property, I think it is well for the House to guard the resources of the local authorities—because, after all, it is the local authorities who are concerned here—by some more explicit procedure than that which is provided in the words of the Clause, or even in the speech of the Minister.

Mr. O. Poole

This is an important point and I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I elaborate it a little further, We go so quickly through the Amendments on the Paper that it is sometimes difficult to follow exactly where we are. The point we raised when this matter was discussed earlier was whether the Minister would lay down criteria of what the changes in the circumstances of the railway would be. The Minister replied, in effect, that we could not tell until the nationalised railways had been run for two or three years. We accepted that, but this Amendment takes account of that argument, and we would like a further explanation of what the right hon. Gentleman has in mind. I do not wish to engender any heat, but I must say frankly that we have in mind that it may be possible in certain circumstances that the Transport Commission will operate at a considerable loss for a period of years in circumstances which may or may not be their fault. It may be that the Government in power at that time may try to hide away those losses by making reductions in the rate contribution by using the words "changes in the circumstances." It is for that reason that we feel that we must stress this point rather strongly.

10 p.m.

Mr. Bevan

I can speak again only with the permission of the House. There are two forms of adjustment necessary in order to determine what contribution the Transport Commission should make to the central pool for distribution to local authorities. The first is a very simple one. It is the actual rate levied by the local authorities upon which the contribution would be based. Obviously, if the railways were still rated and on the local rating roll, an increase of the rates by the local authorities would automatically carry an increase in contribution by the railways. Therefore, the first adjustment must always be subject to the actual level of rate levied by the local authorities at any time. That is common ground. Provision is made for that in the statute.

Further, there is always a possibility of the rateable value being appreciated or depreciated by trading. It is true that, as it is a nationalised undertaking, considerations of public policy might even lead to the railways being run at a loss or being run at a profit. No one knows. The argument has been advanced on some occasions that the railways might in certain circumstances act in subvention of commerce generally, in which case the earnings of the railways would be artificially depreciated by action of the Government. If, therefore, their valuation for the purpose of making this contribution to local rates were affected by this artificial depreciation, it would be unjust and unfair to local authorities. They would then be receiving from the railways a smaller sum of money, not on account of the ordinary trading transactions of the railway companies, but on account of an act of public policy by the Government. That is a patently unjust provision.

It is because these considerations are so substantial that there can hardly be any possibility of any Minister making an order under this Clause being allowed to get away with a perfunctory speech. He will be compelled to explain the circumstances and all the considerations leading to the order. Obviously we have to take power to make an order, because at the moment we do not know what adjustments ought to be made. Actually we are protecting the local authority by laying an obligation upon the Minister to make an order when sufficient time has elapsed for the circumstances to fructify.

Again it is rather silly to provide in a statute that the Minister shall put in the order all the arguments he is going to use for making the order. Speeches are not put in orders. An order is not a vehicle of persuasion; it is an instrument of action. Therefore, it is unreasonable at this moment to suggest that the Minister should put in the statute the arguments leading to the need for the order, firstly, because there is a paper shortage and, secondly, the lawyers would have a good time, for the courts would not only have to construe the contents of the order, but the arguments of the Minister making the order as well. I suggest that the main points of the Opposition have been met, and I hope the Debate will now draw to a peaceful close.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

I can only speak by leave of the House, but I trust that the leave extended to the Minister will not be withheld from myself.

Mr. Speaker

No leave is required for the Minister in charge of a Bill in Committee, for he has the right to speak as often as he likes. On Report only the Mover of the Amendment has that right.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

I cast myself unreservedly on the mercy and discretion of the Committee which I trust will not be withheld on this occasion. The Minister has used the very seductive argument that this is really a protection against the Minister deciding to overwrite the railways. In other words, he is trying to say that the Minister, on the grounds of public policy, might bring out the commercial results of the railways at a low figure, and it would be greatly to the advantage of the local authorities if the Minister decided, in spite of the low figure, to bring out an order giving the local authorities the larger sum of money. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That I gather was the burden of his argument.

Mr. Bevan

I was not saying any such thing. I was merely taking up the points made by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman's friends behind him. The points were perfectly sound—that there is no accounting the change in circumstances. We do not know what the circumstances are going to be, and all we do here is to take a protective power for the local authority, laying upon the Minister the obligation to make an order and, when making the order, to give an extended explanation why he is making it. I think the right hon. and gallant Gentleman is making heavy weather on a protection which he should welcome rather than frown upon.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

I am not frowning upon this protection, but am asking that, in addition to the slip of mackintosh that the Minister has held out, I should be given a set of oilskins as well. Those of us who have to bear up against the powerful jets of argument which the Minister unleashes at any moment require as much protection as we can get. Furthermore, the fact of the matter is that in so far as information is vouchsafed to the House of Commons in definition, to that extent the House of Commons is fortified. The more the House of Commons is fortified in the way of information, the more powerful and informative do its Debates become.

We are merely asking that the order made should be as full as possible, so that the House of Commons can advance on the task laid upon it, fortified with the full knowledge of what is in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman. We still find ourselves dissatisfied with the fact that the right hon. Gentleman desires to make the order in skeleton form and then elaborate it in a speech. We would prefer that the order were brought before the House fully clothed—[Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite are not accelerating the Debate by their interruptions. These are not fantastic considerations. Hon. Members opposite who have been in opposition, and who will be in opposition again, will certainly be eager, as we are on this occasion, to have as full information as possible. We who are in opposition certainly realise the advantage of getting all the information we can extract from Ministers. We desire to have that information as fully as possible, not simply for party purposes of the Opposition, but to enable the House to fulfil its task.

Amendment negatived.