HC Deb 16 February 1949 vol 461 cc1196-203

6.0 p.m.

The Chairman

Mr. Sparks.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

On a point of Order, Major Milner. May I draw your attention to the fact that I have an Amendment down to this Clause in page 5, line 30, after "Act," to insert "and of the principal Acts."

The Chairman

I am sorry but the hon. Member's Amendment is out of Order, as is also his Amendment in page 5, line 44, at the end, to insert: (3) The register shall be so prepared and kept up to date so as to contain with regard to any dwelling-house in respect of which the principal Acts apply, being a dwelling-house in the area of the local authority, particulars of the standard rent of the dwelling-house in such form as may be prescribed from time to time by the Minister of Health. It is outside the Money Resolution.

Mr. Fletcher

May I make a submission to you on that point, Major Milner, because this seems to me to raise a point of some general importance? I understood you to rule that my first Amendment is out of Order because it is not covered by the Money Resolution. May I remind you that there is nothing whatever in the Money Resolution which was passed after the Bill had had its Second Reading which deals with this Clause? The ambit of the Money Resolution which was passed by the Committee is very narrowly drawn and drawn in such a way as to authorise the expenditure out of public funds of the money required to serve the purposes of the tribunal.

There is nothing in the Money Resolution which covers the expenses to which local authorities will be put by having to provide the register under Clause 4. I think that is appropriate to the case because, as I understand the position, it is unnecessary to have a Money Resolution to authorise expenditure by local authorities as distinct from the expenditure by the Exchequer. If I am right in thinking that, I find it difficult to understand why an Amendment which is merely designed to extend the scope of the register which local authorities are to be required to keep should be ruled out of Order because there is nothing in the Money Resolution about it. The whole object of the Amendment is to enable local authorities to carry out what is universally regarded as a desirable preliminary to any general review of these Acts.

The Chairman

I am obliged to the hon. Member. He must not, of course, argue the merits of the proposal. It is true that the Clause provides for a register to be kept of the determinations of the tribunal. This is a very small matter and on the de minimis rule, it is not customary to provide for, it in the terms of a Financial Resolution. The hon. Member's proposal now is a very different one and would involve very substantial expenditure indeed, I am advised. In those circumstances, as some contribution would have to be made from the national Exchequer, it is necessary to have a Money Resolution.

Mr. Fletcher

I realise that the provision of a register of all rent controlled dwelling-houses will involve a greater expenditure by local authorities than the provision of a register for the purposes of the Act. Whether that increased expenditure is substantial or de minimis or something between the two, I do not think anybody can know, because from the language of the Amendment, it depends on what regulations are prescribed. The point has now emerged from your Ruling, Major Milner, that the expenditure which you have in mind will not be the expenditure of the central Exchequer but the expenditure of local authorities. I believe I am right in thinking that until a year or two ago, an Amendment could never have been ruled out of Order in a Committee of this House merely because it involved an addition to the expenditure of local authorities.

I realise that the position has changed to some extent now by virtue of the Local Government Act, 1948, which changed the method by which the central Exchequer makes contributions to the local authorities, but this particular point, if I remember rightly, was raised during the Second Reading Debate and the Committe stage of the Local Government Act, 1948. It was realised that it ought not to detract from the rights of hon. Members merely because under the Act of 1948 the Exchequer make their contributions to the revenues of local authorities on a different principle. I, therefore, suggest with great respect that this is a matter of some importance and that I should be allowed to move my Amendment in order to put before the Committee reasons designed to show that it is essential for the purposes of the general review of the Rent Acts which is contemplated that a necessary preliminary step should be authorised now by the House and undertaken without delay.

The Chairman

The question of merits does not enter into this matter. The point I have to decide is whether under the Rules of the House the hon. Gentleman's Amendment is in Order. I am afraid that I have come to the conclusion that it is not in Order because it is not covered by the terms of the Financial Resolution. The hon. Member is correct in saying that up to two or three years ago this might have been dealt with without the necessity for a Financial Resolution, but as he knows, the Local Government Act provided for contributions on a certain basis by the national Exchequer and his present proposal would attract a grant from the national Exchequer which I am advised would be very substantial. That would not come within the terms of the de minimis rule and that being the case, I have no alternative under the Rules of the House but to rule the Amendment out of Order.

Mr. Hogg

This seems to be a question of some substance and one which would perhaps have rather surprised those who made the change concerning local government finance in the Act. I wonder whether this is the first occasion on which this point has been raised. Although I appreciate the reasons which underlie your Ruling, Major Milner, it is an odd result of the Local Government Act, 1948, that we cannot now make provision for expenditure by local authorities because to do so would attract a block grant from the central Exchequer. The effect, oddly enough, is to take away from Private Members, though not from the Government, a right which they would hitherto have regarded most jealously.

Mr. Bevan

Of course, hon. Members cannot in any way challenge the Ruling which you gave, Major Milner, but I must say on the spur of the moment without having an opportunity to reflect very much about it—I trust that all I say will be regarded as tentative—that I should be surprised if it were the intention—it was certainly not my intention as the author of the 1948 Act—to so limit the rights of the House in this matter because it would be a most serious thing if the Government could resist any Amendment on the ground that too large a sum was imposed upon the Exchequer or for any other reason. It is rather a serious matter if hon. Members of the Committee or the House are inhibited from putting down an Amendment merely on account of the fact that an additional activity by a local authority would attract such proportion of Exchequer grant as the increased expenditure of a local authority will give rise to. This is a matter upon which we ought to have some more discussion. It is a serious question indeed.

The Chairman

It may be of help to the Committee if I say that I am not in the least unsympathetic or in oppositon to the view expressed by the Minister, and I understood the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher) to say that the possibility of such a result was pointed out at the time of the 1948 Act. For the moment I must stick to my Ruling, but I suggest that this is one of those matters which might be considered privately so that an endeavour may be made, if the House wishes, to find a way out of the difficulty for the future.

Mr. Marlowe

Would it be possible for the hon. Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher) to put his Amendment in Order by adding a manuscript Amendment to the effect that this should be a charge solely on local authorities?

Mr. Fletcher

While I must accept your Ruling, Major Milner, I should like, if I catch your eye, to say a word on the merits of this proposal on the Question "That the Clause stand part." I should like to make this observation about the remarks of the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg). It seems to me to be very important that it should not emerge from this discussion that the rights of Members of the Front Bench in this respect are any greater than the rights of hon. Members in other parts of the House—

Hon. Members

They are.

The Chairman

I say at once that the hon. Member is perfectly correct in that. The Front Bench have no greater powers than other hon. Members.

Mr. Hogg

I think I was right in what I said originally. The rule is, I understand, that it is part of the custom of this House that increases in charge may be moved by Members of the Government, although of course it is true that a further Financial Resolution might be required at one stage or other. The effect would be that Members of the Govern- ment could move Amendments one way or the other, increasing the activities of local authorities whereas Private Members could not because they never could initiate a Resolution in Committee. I therefore think I was right in substance in what I originally said.

The Chairman

I am not disputing whether the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) is right or wrong. However, it is a fact, of course, that only the Government can initiate expenditure, but just as with any other hon. Member, they must work within the terms of the Financial Resolution passed either early or late as the case may be.

Mr. S. Silverman

Assuming as one must, and as I do, that the original Ruling was correct, is it not then very important indeed that regard should be paid to that fact whenever a Money Resolution is drafted? It is extremely unfortunate if the state of the Rules of the House is such that if a Money Resolution is tightly drawn, it prevents the Committee from discussing a point, whatever the ultimate results might be, when we all desire to discuss it and when the Government themselves would not wish us not to discuss it? It seems that if the effect of the Local Government Act is to produce this limiting effect upon the rights of Private Members afterwards, the Government might well have regard to that in considering the terms of Money Resolutions which they put on the Order Paper.

Mr. Bevan

It does not seem to me that very much damage has been done so far. The House may recollect that it has been found necessary to change the Rules governing the Private Bill Procedure because of the application to Private Bill legislation of the 1948 Local Government Act, and it is also obvious that, as the Chairman has said, as this would attract a charge from national funds, it is not open for Private Members to put down Amendments which have that effect. The hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) quite properly pointed that out. However, I think we might tonight leave it at the point where I will discuss what steps, if any, are necessary to liberate the House from the inhibitions imposed on it by the 1948 Act. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher) for having raised the point.

The Chairman

The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) was correct in regard to the Financial Resolution. It would, however, have been competent for the hon. Member for East Islington to raise his point when the Financial Resolution came before the Committee. Unfortunately that was not done.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Sparks (Acton)

I beg to move, in page 5, line 32, to leave out "Minister may direct," and to insert "local authority may determine."

This is a minor Amendment which I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to accept. The Clause as it stands says that the register must be in such place or places, and kept in such manner, as the Minister may direct. All this Amendment is asking is that the discretion shall be left to the local authorities. After all, they can carry out the provisions of this Clause quite well, and it seems redundant that the Minister in such a small matter shall lay down so precisely how the register shall be kept. The local authorities already have to keep a register of proceedings under the 1946 Act, and there is no reason why this register cannot be kept in similar form and discretion be allowed them as to the place and manner in which it is kept.

Mr. Blenkinsop

As my hon. Friend says, he has raised what is a small point; but this matter was considered when the Furnished Houses (Rent Control) Act was passed, where exactly the same provision stands. We see no good reason why the same provision should not be made in this Measure. It seems to us to have worked quite satisfactorily, and we do not propose that any change should be made.

Mr. Sparks

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Mr. E. Fletcher

In common with every other hon. Member of the Committee, I welcome this Clause but regret that its effect is weakened by the limited nature of its provisions. It is agreed that a register is essential to record the decisions of these tribunals, but I regret that the Clause does not go further and compel local authorities to compile a register showing the standard rents and the rents payable in respect of all rent-controlled dwelling houses within their area. Those of us who welcome the improvements that have been made in the Bill since its Second Reading regard it, apart from its intrinsic merits, as a prelude to a comprehensive review of the morass of Rent Restrictions Acts, but a first step towards that must be a compilation of the existing standard rents which now date back to 1915 and are difficult to understand. The point was put very well in a recent leading article in "The Times" which said: If rent control"—

The Chairman

Clearly the hon. Gentleman cannot argue something on the Clause as a whole, which he was not permitted to argue on an Amendment which was out of Order. I have given him a little latitude, but he ought not to go into detail.

Mr. Fletcher

I accept your Ruling, Major Milner, and do not want to go into detail. I merely want to emphasise the point that, before we can get a comprehensive review of the rent Acts, we must have a register of existing rents payable under the existing Acts.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.