HC Deb 28 July 1949 vol 467 cc2794-8

The Lords do not insist on their Amendment at page 2, line 23, to which the Commons have disagreed, but propose the following Amendment to the Bill in lieu thereof

In page 2, line 23, at end insert: Provided that the Board shall not carry on any activities outside Great Britain except under an authority in that behalf conferred by order of the Minister. (2) The power conferred by this section on the Minister shall be exercisable by statutory instrument which shall be laid before Parliament after being made. Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment"—[Mr. Robens.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth)

I do hope we shall be given some statement. The Minister ought to give us some explanation, because he must have seen that in another place the spokesman for the Government gave an assurance, and we should like it to be repeated in this House. It is very difficult to follow exactly what happens, because in another place the Lord Chancellor, a member of the Cabinet, makes promises which are repudiated by the Minister of Fuel and Power who is not a member of the Cabinet, and the position is really baffling and bewildering. We want to have a clear statement about where the Government stand. The spokesman for the Government in another place yesterday made some attacks by name on Members of this House. I am not going to follow his bad example, for it would be out of Order, but I ask for a clear statement now. Does the Lord Chancellor, who is a member of the Cabinet, or does the Minister of Fuel and Power who is not a member of the Cabinet, speak for the Government in this matter? We really must thresh this thing out.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Robens)

On the matter before the House now I can make a statement which, I hope, will meet the situation. The House is well aware that a Debate took place on the overseas activities of the National Coal Board, and the House is aware also of discussions that took place in another place. We have agreed now with the Amendment submitted by another place, which means that if the National Coal Board desire to carry on activities overseas they must first have the authority of the Minister of Fuel and Power, and that that authority will be by Statutory Instrument, which must be laid before this House. That is the position now, and that is the situation in which I move that we agree to the Amendment that has now come from another place.

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

I think the House is entitled to rather a fuller explanation from the Parliamentary Secretary of the change of attitude on the part of the Government. The House will recollect that when the previous Lords Amendment was discussed on 12th July, the Minister made it quite clear that he regarded it as highly undesirable that any official action for which the Minister could be held responsible should be necessary in the case of an extension overseas of the activities of the National Coal Board. The House will recollect that a substantial Debate took place on that issue, and that the right hon. Gentleman told the House that it was most undesirable that any such action should be taken.

His particular point, as I understood it, was that if such action were taken it would tend in the eyes of foreign countries to identify the National Coat Board with the Government. One would appreciate that no one would want to be identified with this particular Government, but the point was taken very strongly that it would be very embarrassing for the National Coal Board in its activities overseas to be so identified. Now we have tonight the Parliamentary Secretary coming down to the House and moving to agree with a Lords Amendment under which the activities of the National Coal Board in any foreign country can only be undertaken under the authority of a Statutory Instrument made by the Minister.

I am very glad the Government have, to some extent, seen reason in this matter, but surely the House is entitled to be told why it is that the Government have changed their minds. The Government, in my view, have changed their minds in the right direction, but when we have had a quite lengthy Debate only a fortnight ago, in which wholly contrary views were urged by the Government, one wants to know why they have changed their minds.

Is it that they have at last seen that the views of this side of the House, urged on the Report stage and in the Committee stage, and which appeared to have no effect upon the Government, are right? Is it that they have at long last been converted when the same arguments have been uttered, not by Members of this House, but by noble Lords in another place? Is that so? Or is it that the Government now found it, for some reason of their own, convenient to agree with the views of another place, but still retain their own views on the merits? I think we are entitled to be told, because this is an immensely serious matter. Rightly or wrongly, it affects the activities of the National Coal Board all over the world, and on such an important matter, when the Government change their minds, the least they can do is to tell the House of Commons why.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

I congratulate the Government on having changed their minds on this occasion. I do not assume that it is some sudden accession of sense to the Government; but I am assuming that, having heard the Opposition put forward their arguments the other night, they have realised the serious dangers which might face any Government which embarked on a large extension of trade abroad without the consent of the House.

I would point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) that the Government have often changed their minds during the course of this Parliament, sometimes for one reason and sometimes for another. I remember very well the Debate the other day, and it was quite obvious that on that occasion the Minister was not acting in a commonsense way. Even his hon. Friends looked unhappy, and I am sure that what has happened is that there has been a threat exercised on the Government, although not from these benches and not from the Government back benches. The Chief Patronage Secretary went to the Government and said that they would be quite mad if they did not exercise this power and accept this Amendment. Judging from his expression, I believe that the Chief Patronage Secretary agrees with me. In the circumstances, I am very glad that the Government have changed their minds and that we can now have this Amendment. Again we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the other place for having taken out of the Bill one of the more imbecile passages.

Colonel Clarke (East Grinstead)

As one who for a long time pressed the acceptance of the substance of this Amendment, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will, with the leave of the House, give a little more explanation. This has been running on now since January or February, and I hope this evening will see the end of it. I am sure my hon. Friend would not object to his speaking again, and I hope that he will put in clearer and fuller form what he has already said, which was by no means clear to me.

Mr. David Griffiths (Rother Valley)

I am sorry that the Government have decided to accept this Amendment. I am sure the Opposition are rejoicing at this display of weakness. I cannot accept that this is a legitimate claim, because I see this Amendment as a definite obstacle to the Coal Board in its future possibilities of activities in competing with hon. Members opposite.

Mr. Robens

With the leave of the House. I should like to say just this. Almost throughout the passage of the Bill the Opposition have been violently opposed to the National Coal Board having any activities overseas. Subsequently in debate they changed their mind a little and said that they would agree to the National Coal Board exercising their functions abroad, provided that on each occasion they came to this House and asked for the permission of the House. Broadly, that was the position. This is something rather different, but it represents the happy spirit of compromise we find in this House and in British politics generally. I can assure my hon Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. D. Griffiths) that it in no way prevents the Coal Board from taking part in overseas activity. What it means is that the National Coal Board will require a statutory order from the Minister before they will be allowed to do so. The House will be informed of the order, and it will not be for it to decide whether it is made or not.

Mr. Bracken

Wait and see.

Mr. Robens

No, it is not an order that can be prayed against. This is not weakness on the part of the Government. It represents a compromise of the views expressed. It in no way affects the right of the Coal Board to function abroad, but, as I have said, they must first get authority from the Minister.

Mr. Bracken

May I, by leave of the House, thank the Parliamentary Secretary for his statement and congratulate the Government, who have skinned alive the gas stockholders, on taking some interest in the people who have to deal with coal?

Question put, and agreed to.