HC Deb 05 March 1948 vol 448 cc707-9
Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

I beg to move, in page 41, line 42, at the end, to insert: and orders made by the Minister under Section thirty-five shall be laid before Parliament immediately after they are made, and if either House of Parliament, within the period of forty days beginning with the day on which any such order is laid before it, resolves that the order be annulled, the order shall cease to have effect, but without prejudice to anything previously done thereunder or to the making of a new order. In reckoning any such period of forty days, no account shall be taken of any time during which Parliament is dissolved or prorogued or during which both Houses are adjourned for more than four days. This Amendment is designed to give the House power to pray against an order made under Clause 35, which says: Where the Minister is of opinion … that a local authority have failed to discharge any of their functions under this Part of this Act … he may …make an order declaring the authority to be in default. The authorities are large and important county councils or county borough councils, and Part III is a large and important section of the Bill which deals with the provision of accommodation, the management of premises, and welfare services. It seems reasonable, if a dispute has arisen between a Minister and a large local authority on so important a subject, that it should be brought to the notice of Parliament. This is the way in which we suggest that it should be done.

Mr. J. Edwards

I cannot accept the view advanced by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman that this is a reasonable proposal. Clause 35 empowers the Minister to make orders dealing with the default of a local authority. This Clause substantially follows earlier statutory provisions of the same kind. There is nothing new in it. Section 322 of the Public Health Act, 1936, and Section 57 of the National Health Service Act, 1946, contain substantially similar provisions. Local authorities are accustomed to this arrangement and, as far as I know, they have raised no objection. As under the existing law, so under this Clause of the Bill, we must regard an order made as an administrative measure on the part of the Minister in the exercise of the general supervisory duty placed upon him by Parliament. In the first instance, the order would amount to nothing more than a direction to a local authority, found after inquiry to be in default, to take steps to remedy the default. A further order transferring any functions of the local authority to the Minister could be made only when the authority failed to comply with the directions of the Minister.

I suggest that if this Amendment were accepted, it would seriously undermine the position of the Minister in the discharge of his supervisory duties under the Bill. The effect would be to require Parliament to arbitrate between the Minister and a local authority on the question whether or not the authority had defaulted. I say with great respect to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, whose experience in these matters is much greater than mine, that I do not consider that that is a proper function for Parliament to perform. This is a case where we are dealing with the legitimate administrative functions of the Minister which are clearly laid down. I am unable to accept the view advanced by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, and I ask the House to reject this Amendment.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

It was really with the object of fortifying the position of the Minister that I moved this Amendment. In my experience, a Minister very seldom makes use of these enormous powers. The suggestion that it would be an interference with the administrative work of the Minister would not, in practice, hold water. This does not ask Parliament to arbitrate between the Minister and the local authority. It suggests that the Minister should fortify himself with the opinion of Parliament before taking the tremendous step which he is asked to take here. In practice, these matters are the subject of long negotiation. My experience as a Minister has been that it is almost impossible to find an occasion upon which these powers can be exercised. I would have thought that the machinery for bringing the matter before Parliament would have been of advantage to the Minister. The Parliamentary Secretary mentioned that this would be "after inquiry." Clause 35 says that the Minister may make an order: …after such inquiry as he may think fit. I do not wish to press the matter unduly. I know from experience that before a Minister, by order, supersedes a local authority in part or whole of its functions, and, still more, before a Minister transfers some of those functions to another local authority, he needs to be fortified in every way. I should have thought that the opportunity of bringing the matter before Parliament would have been welcomed by the Minister. If the (Minister remains obdurate, however, I certainly do not intend to divide the House.

Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)

There may be something in what the Parliamentary Secretary said about Parliament coming between the Minister and the local authority. Obviously, the Minister must decide whether or not the local authority has carried out its job. To that extent, it may be that this Amendment goes a little too far; but in the case of the secondary order, that is a serious matter. Hon. Members know that the first order merely orders specific performance. After that, if the job is not done, the Minister can order the functions to be transferred. That is a serious matter, and I suggest that the Minister should consider it further. If necessary, he could introduce an Amendment in another place. It would be a good thing if Parliament were to have an opportunity of examining these orders before they are applied.

Amendment negatived.