HC Deb 25 October 1949 vol 468 cc1235-56

Order for Second Reading read.

7.23 p.m.

The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Gaitskell)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This is a one-Clause Bill which has a very limited scope and purpose. It is concerned only with one aspect of the compensation arrangements for colliery companies. It does not affect the amount of compensation paid but relates solely to the kind of payment of certain sums which would in any case have to be, and would have been, paid to the companies when the process of valuation was complete.

To explain the Bill I must. I am afraid, refer to the position under the 1946 nationalisation Act. The House will perhaps recall that there were three stages under which the compensation to be paid to the colliery companies was to be settled. The first stage was the fixing of the global sum to be distributed among all the colliery companies at what was called "the coal industry value of the industry"; that is to say, those assets which were associated with the system of wages ascertainment which existed prior to nationalisation. In effect, those assets covered, broadly speaking, the pits and the actual machinery and equipment relevant to the production of coal, but did not cover the ancillary properties—coke ovens, brickworks and so on.

The second stage was the division of the global sum among the various districts. That was to be done by a central valuation board. The last stage is the division of the sums allocated to the districts among the companies and, at the same time, the valuation of the ancillary assets which had been handed over by the companies to the National Coal Board on the vesting day. In point of fact, the global sum was settled in the month of July, 1946. The division of the global sum was settled by the Central Valuation Board in February, 1949. That is to say, a considerable period elapsed between the fixing of the global sum and its sub-division. The reason for that time elapsing was that the various district associations representing the different companies very naturally argued at considerable length, in front of the Central Valuation Board about what they regarded as their appropriate share of the total sum.

It was, of course, inevitable in these circumstances that some time would elapse between the vesting date and the final settlement of compensation. The 1946 Act recognises that, primarily by providing a right to what is called "interim income." This means, in effect, that when compensation is finally paid, interest from the vesting date to the date of payment on the capital sum to be paid should be added. It is, I think, described in the Act as additional sums.

The 1946 Act, however, did something else. It also provided for what were called "revenue payments" to be made to the companies in respect of the two years after the vesting date. These revenue payments were equal to half what was called "the comparable ascertained revenue of the company," which was in turn equal either to the profit of the last year before 1st July, 1946, or to the average profit of the two preceding years, at the option of the company, with a minimum of 4d. per ton. These so-called revenue payments were in place of the accumulated interest—in other words, the interim income—if they were equal to or exceeded the interim income. If, on the other hand, they fell short of the interim income—the accumulated interest—the balance had to be paid over. That was the rather complicated procedure laid down in the 1946 Act.

The process of valuation has, as I have said, been continued and progress has been made, and some £30 million has been paid to the colliery companies in respect of various classes of property, but there is no denying that the main job is by no means finished, and is unlikely to be finished for at least another year. Meanwhile, the colliery companies, or the most part of them, continue in existence. In existence, they incur costs. Incidentally, part of their costs are incurred in fighting for what they regard as their rights under the Act—

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth)

I should hope so.

Mr. Gaitskell

—that is to say, arguing in front of the various boards and valuation authorities that have been set up. Some of these companies, no doubt, have other sources of income and reserves, but not necessarily all of them. The question therefore arises, should anything be done to bridge the gap which now exists between the end of the revenue payments—because that process lasted for only two years—and the final payment of compensation.

I took the view that, while it seemed to me out of the question to countenance any additional compensation being paid to the colliery companies, it was not unreasonable to consider payments on account to them in respect of what they were in any case eventually to receive. I had to consider what the general view of the Government was at the time of the passing of the 1946 Act, and while no undertaking was given by my predecessor or by other Members of the Government at that time, it would be fair to say that their general expectation was that the process of valuation would be somewhat speedier than it has turned out to be.

Moreover, when discussing this very question during the passage of the Bill, reference was made to the possibility of the Minister taking action to deal with this problem by making regulations under the 1946 Act. It was thought at that time, I believe, that the Minister had powers to deal with the situation that might arise if such a gap supervened—that is to say, between the end of the revenue payments and the settlement of the final compensation. It was thought that the Minister could deal with this question under regulations. That was my own impression when I first began to study this problem, and I recall answering one or two questions in the House which were put to me from time to time by saying that I hoped to make regulations if it was necessary at the end of the revenue payments.

I am now advised that this is not possible. The provision under Section 19 might allow the Minister to make regulations providing for the repayment of capital earlier, but that would not really help the present position because that repayment of capital would necessarily be tied up and could not be used for ordinary current expenditure. The alternative method of Section 22, likewise, I am advised, could not be used for this purpose. Therefore I came to the conclusion that it was fair and right, without increasing by a single penny the amount of compensation to be paid, to make provision in some way or other for payment on account to the companies, and that is the reason for this Bill.

The Bill provides for revenue payments to be continued at one-third instead of one-half of the comparable ascertained revenue of the company, defined in the same way as in the 1946 Act. But the Bill ensures this time, not merely that if the revenue payment is less than the accumulated interest the balance will be paid to the company, but also that if it is more than the accumulated interest, repayment will have to be made by the company to the Government when the final settlement of compensation is made. In effect, it simply provides for interest on account to be paid instead of being accumulated and then paid at the end when the capital compensation is finally settled. We have done it in this way by continuing the revenue payments simply because that is the most convenient amendment to make to achieve the object we have in mind.

It may be asked why we fix the revenue payments at one-third instead of one-half. The reason is because we think the one-third will closely approximate to the actual interest payments which will in fact be due and it would be common sense to try to fix it as close as possible so as to avoid payment of balances or repayment of excess which may be involved later on. I think it will amount to about £8 million for the first year, 1949. It will, of course, be much less for the succeeding year and still less, if there is necessity for it at all, in the following year, because of the payment of capital compensation.

No charge is involved as a result of this on the Exchequer and the money the Exchequer pays out to the colliery companies as the new revenue payments will be repaid by the National Coal Board. The National Coal Board suffers no loss as a result of this because in any case it would have to set the sums aside for future payments. Therefore we need have no anxiety about extra payments being made to anybody. It is simply a method of facilitating payment to enable the colliery companies to continue their business. I have tried to explain the nature of the Bill and the reasons for its introduction. In my view there is a clear case for this Bill in the circumstances, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayreshire)

The Minister referred to costs incurred by colliery companies in "fighting for their rights." Could he tell us if these sums are lawyers' fees for appearing before the tribunal? Has he any estimate of what sums of compensation have been paid to these lawyers and does he wonder why the litigation has lasted for so long?

Mr. Gaitskell

No, I meant their legal rights under the 1946 Act. Certainly the sums would include such payments as lawyers' fees as well as accountants' fees and so on, but I have no estimate to give my hon. Friend.

7.35 p.m.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth)

This Bill may be described as a Measure of petty and tardy justice. I wish the Minister had been as generous to the unfortunates of the gas industry as he has been to the coal industry. I should have said not "generous" but "just." There is no doubt that the unfortunate shareholders whose properties have been seized by the nationalisers deserve to be paid in accordance with the compensation schemes approved by this House and administered by the right hon. Gentleman, but this Bill is in a sense, an indictment of the presumptuous and amateurish planners who have wrought such great harm in the coal industry.

During the Debate on the principal Act that great lawyer Lord Reid most forcibly expressed doubts about the promise of the Government to complete most of the compensation agreements within two years. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury had an opportunity of listening to that speech. My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) was once again a true and caustic prophet. Every criticism of the compensation procedure has been justified by events. My hon. Friend the senior Burgess for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Hendon (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) shared the doubts of Lord Reid and of my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough about the efficiency of the machinery set up to provide compensation.

But there was one great defender of this machinery and I am very glad to see him in his place here tonight. I refer, of course, to the right hon., amiable and perpetually mistaken Financial Secretary to the Treasury. What did he do? He rebuked my right hon. and hon. Friends for their doubts about the settlements being made in the majority of cases within two years. He told a trusting, not to say confiding House, We have a Labour Government in office and that Government moves with speed. Here is another quotation from the right hon. Gentleman: It hopes and believes that well within the period"— that is two years— matters of this kind will be settled."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th January, 1946; Vol. 418, c. 1049.] The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, now so fortunately translated to the Duchy of Lancaster, boomed his approval of that claim.

I shall not weary the House by any lengthy reminder that this Bill is another example of the failure of the Socialist Government to keep their promises. All the resources of platitude have long since been exhausted in dealing with this Government's manifold failures to fulfil their pledges. I do not of course accuse the Government of any desire to dishonour the pledges it made to coal shareholders and I honour the Minister for the way he defended the Government's attitude tonight. He did not get very much applause from the Mountain behind him, but he did his duty well. I merely wish to point out that in this, as in all other matters of administration, the Government have been altogether overoptimistic and thoroughly incompetent.

I do not want to rub in these facts. I have already reminded you, Mr. Speaker, that they are now platitudes on both sides of the House. It would really be the worst of platitudes to say that this Government are thoroughly incompetent; that is accepted by all. I wish to say, however, that by producing this Bill, which the Minister commended to the House tonight in the most agreeable fashion, he is of course censuring the foolish optimism and lavish promises of his right hon. Friends the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It must have been hard on the right hon. Gentleman, because the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is of course his political foster father, a position now usurped by a frostier gentleman, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer.

We on this side of the House can only say "Ditto" to the well-deserved censure on the Financial Secretary made by the Minister. We realise that it was necessary to bring in this Bill because of the incompetence and the over-promising character of the right hon. Gentleman. It takes up a lot of time, and we would wish to be dealing with other matters. Nevertheless, I do not wish to rub it in too hard, but this is the sort of price we pay for the right hon., amiable but incompetent gentleman. I hope that the Minister will do everything in his power to speed a settlement with the many thousands of shareholders of small means whose properties he has taken away.

I think that I speak on behalf of all my hon. Friends on this side of the House—[Laughter]—that is something no Minister can do—in saying that it would be quite ungenerous of me not to express some sympathy with the highly competent but wholly unfortunate officials of the Ministry of Fuel and Power who are struggling to bring some sort of order into the Heath Robinson machinery for compensation set up by Ministers opposite. Courtesy and fairness have marked all the doings of the civil servants who are working overtime to mop up the mess created by these Ministers in a hurry.

7.43 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

I am sorry that this Bill has been introduced, and had I thought it possible to get a measure of support I should have put down an Amendment that it be read this day six months. I am against an interim payment to mineowners. I was against it in 1948. I am against it in 1949.

Mr. Speaker

The principle of compensation is outside the scope of this Bill. This is a machinery Bill to provide how the existing compensation shall be paid. I must rule out of Order the attacking of the whole principle of compensation.

Mr. Gallacher

I think there was a decision taken to make an interim payment in 1948 because the compensation machinery was operating in a very creaky manner. Some one had put sand in the bearings and the compensation could not be settled. This Bill is to make an interim payment for 1949.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre (New Forest and Christchurch)

Get a copy of the Bill.

Mr. Gallacher

I have done so. It states: Section 22 (2) of that Act provides that the right to interim income is to be satisfied by making (as an addition to any amount … and so forth. And also: The present Bill provides for the making to colliery concerns and subsidiaries of payments in respect of 1949 … That is what the Bill is for—to provide for the making of payments in 1949, I am opposed to a payment being made in 1949. Surely I am entitled to oppose payments being made? If this Bill is not passed no payments can be made in 1949. The creaking machinery for compensation will still go on working. I do not want any payments made in 1949 so I do not wish this Bill to pass. Surely I am entitled to say that?

I have good reasons for saying that I am opposed to payments being made in 1949. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition—as presently constituted—said that the Minister was very generous—

Mr. Bracken

indicated dissent.

Mr. Gallacher

—and he wished that the Minister had been as generous to the gas companies.

Mr. Bracken


Mr. Gallacher

The right hon. Gentleman said that later. It was an afterthought because he realised that he had "put his foot in it." He was knocking the bottom out of his own propaganda when he talked about the Minister being generous, but wished that he had been as generous to the gas companies. I should be very pleased if the Minister would be as generous or just to the Scottish miners. They have an amazing record of coal production. Yet, although they have a much higher production record per man-shift than is the case say in Durham or Northumberland, the miners there get 3s. 1d per day more.

Mr. Speaker

Output per man-shift is entirely outside the scope of this Bill.

Mr. Gallacher

I was stating that by way of illustration to attract, if possible, the generosity or justice of the Minister. It is an alarming fact that in those counties the miners have 3s. 1d. per day more than the Scottish miners. I commend that thought to the Minister.

We have a situation in this country under a Labour Government in which, as a result of these interim payments which were made last year and the interim payments which are to be made this year, the mineowners of this country, including the hon. Gentlemen opposite, are better off under nationalisation than they would have been if they had still owned their semi-bankrupt industry. I ask the Minister to consider once again whether he should go ahead with this Bill. I am certain that he could make a gesture which would arouse the strongest possible support of the miners of this country and give a terrific impetus to coal production if he would stand up at that Box, get the Bill, tear it into pieces and throw it into the wastepaper basket.

7.48 p.m.

Colonel Lancaster (Fylde)

I should like to fill in one or two of the points which the Minister omitted in his statement to the House. The £32 million to which he referred is not the matter which in substance we are discussing tonight. That was on account of matters extraneous to the global sum. This interest payment is chiefly on account of the global sum which so far has not been settled. In the course of his remarks the Minister gave it as his opinion that this final settlement was likely to occur within a year. In the Committee stage of the Measure, when this matter was being discussed, I pointed out that two years, to which on that occasion the Financial Secretary to the Treasury had referred, was of course quite out of the question, and that the matter would be prolonged far beyond that. I must once again give it as my opinion that the year to which the Minister has referred on this occasion is most unlikely to see the completion of the next stage of this matter.

I think that the Minister, who introduced this Bill in a very amiable way, might at least have put it on record that nothing that has occurred so far in regard to the delay which has taken place has been on the part of either the colliery companies or the shareholders. They have been unable to do anything to expedite matters. The Minister explained the various stages which occur in the matter of the apportionment of this global sum. Stage three is the stage at which we have at present arrived; but even with regard to stage three, compensation units which have to be set up before stage three can play its part have not yet been settled. That, of course, is a matter for the Ministry and not for the colliery companies themselves. As I say, it would have been a little more generous on the part of the Minister if he had explained to the House that the delay, about which I do not complain unreasonably, is a delay on the part of the Ministry and the valuation boards, and not in any way a delay on the part of the colliery companies or the people involved on behalf of the shareholders.

I think that the passage of this Bill may provide us with an opportunity of suggesting to the Minister and right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench opposite that they might suggest to some of their more enthusiastic supporters that all the statements being made up and down the country that the Coal Board would have been making a profit if it were not for compensation to the former owners, might, for the time being, be put on one side. In fact, no compensation of any sort has so far occurred. What has been paid out has been £32 million on account of matters outside the global sum, transactions relating to railway wagons, stocks and stores and the like, which in any case should have been paid much more quickly than they have been.

Mr. Gaitskell

Surely the hon. and gallant Member will agree that the Coal Board has in fact made revenue payments which are in place of interim income and which in fact are substantially above what the interest charge will eventually be?

Colonel Lancaster

We are talking at cross purposes. I am talking about the capital sum to which hon. Members refer when they make reference to the losses or profits which the Coal Board do or do not make. In fact, compensation, for a number of reasons, has not so far been paid, and we can only assume their attitude to be that unless this physical asset comes into the possession of the nation for nothing whatsoever by nationalization, it is impossible to make profits. As I say, no compensation so far has been paid. We on this side of the House are not unreasonably complaining of that fact, but we would say that it is incumbent upon hon. Members and others discussing the matter to hold it in reasonable proportion. When and if compensation is eventually paid, that might be a point pertaining to the matter. Meanwhile, it would be no bad thing if it were left out of the speeches of hon. Members.

I would once again like to give a warning that in existing circumstances one year will not suffice for the completion of this matter. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that it will be necessary as much in the next year as in this year to pay one-third of the interest on what will eventually accrue as some form of justice to the colliery companies and shareholders who meanwhile are waiting for what the Act says is their just due.

7.55 p.m.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

In view of the complaints raised by hon. Members on the other side of the House about the delay, which is attributed to the Minister of Fuel and Power, I wish to put one question to the Minister. What period elapsed before the valuation was agreed upon in the regions? I am confident that has been one of the factors causing the delay. A large amount of time has been spent in trying to assess the valuation of the colliery companies in various districts. It has been no desire of the Minister or the miners in this House that it should be held up. We are anxious to clear up the matter in order that our men can understand the real position. I would therefore ask the Minister that straight question; what period elapsed between the vesting day and arriving at the valuation in the various districts throughout the British coalfields?

7.56 p.m.

Mr. Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Ecclesall)

I wish to start by declaring an interest. I may receive, in an indirect way, some of this compensation we are now discussing. That does give me some knowledge of the chaos on which we shall enter if we follow precisely what the Minister is saying. I consider that it is unfair to blame the Financial Secretary, because he was merely voicing what his leader—the present Secretary of State for War—was saying when he admitted, "We recognise the limitations and shortcomings in the full operation" This is no doubt one of the things of which he was thinking.

Behind this administration scheme, now admitted to be a bad one, that was the root cause. As the right hon. Gentleman says—and I agree with him—we must try to get this matter cleared up within two years. The whole reason for stopping the payment after two years was to try to hurry up the proceedings. The right hon. Gentleman did say on one occasion that it was to bring pressure to bear upon the valuation boards, at least that was the question put to him by one of my right hon. Friends. He also imputed that it was to bring pressure on the colliery companies. I wish to suggest to the Minister that surely the root cause of the slowness still remains.

My criticism of this Bill is that there is nothing in it about the question of speeding up this arbitration, and in a moment I shall come to some suggestions about that. The Minister and the Government suggest that the valuation boards might be slow. The Minister suggested that the colliery companies might be slow, but we have not in point of fact heard the root cause, which is that his own Department is slow. Let me give some instances.

In Regulation 1345, which was subsequently amended by Regulation 1381 of 1949, a series of dates were set out on which various applications and objections should be lodged. But there were two periods when no limitation was given. The first was the making of the compensation unit. The making of the compensation unit is stating, in point of fact, what shall be valued; what the object is. That is directly within the responsibility of the Minister and his Department. It is done, I think, by the solicitor's branch of his Department. Until that branch states what is the compensation unit no valuation whatever can take place.

We are now practically three years from the vesting date. I am open to correction, but I would say that practically 90 per cent. of the colliery companies have not yet received their compensation unit. In other words, the Department has not done its job. We refer to the Financial Secretary, who says, "We hope to get it done in two years." Yet the Department itself has taken three years to take the initial step. With great respect, there is the fundamental danger and a danger which this Bill does nothing to rectify.

The second point is that the valuation boards, when eventually they get the compensation unit, have to create what is called draft valuation. In the same way as no time limit was placed on the Minister and his Department for the compensation unit, no time is placed upon the valuation boards for their draft valuation. Whereas possibly we have waited for three years, it may well be that we shall wait for another three for the other, because there is no limit. Yet, when these regulations were made it was said that the colliery concerns would hold matters up. In some cases they are limited to one month, in others to two months and in another case to six weeks. The Minister where he allows any check, takes six months. The two vital places where time will be lost are the compensation unit and the creation of draft valuations.

When we come to the Committee stage I hope that the Minister will seriously consider accepting Amendments to put in a time limit so that we can have a time table. Then not only will the Minister be able to watch the activities of his own Department, but also he will be able to follow the activities of the valuation boards. A danger which he has not mentioned is that although a certain amount of work has been done upon the colliery T.S. assets, practically no work has been done on brickworks, land, buildings, coke ovens and other matters. I appreciate that compensation for those is not a T.S. asset and that does not come directly under this Bill, but the same people who have to value all other ancillary assets have also to value the T.S. assets.

The vista that I see is not one year. I am surprised that the Minister should say that this matter will be finished in one year. If this Bill goes through unamended and the regulations are not altered, I will make a prophecy—which is an unwise thing—that it will be three years before we get anywhere near the final stages. I suggest that the Minister should consider the introduction of a time limit. He has said that the matter will be completed within a year. The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) also said from the Socialist Benches that he and his colleagues wanted the procedure to be speeded up. Let us have a time limit. We have had a Guillotine before. Let us have a reasonable time limit upon the Ministry and the Valuation Board as well as upon the colliery companies.

If we pass this Bill, who will gain by speed? I only propose to state the facts and not to draw conclusions: I leave that to the House. I understand that the Valuation Board is paid £15 a day. Therefore, the more days that are taken, the more pounds will be spent. I leave it at that. The officials of the companies, the managing directors—of which I happen to be one—the directors, secretaries and other officials have jobs which will last as long as the colliery companies last. The longer the colliery company lasts—the longer the valuation takes—the longer are they secure in their jobs.

The shareholders who might go to a shareholders' meeting and demand money because dividends are withheld—and that was why the former Minister put this provision in the Act—are now to receive a Government security possibly of 3 per cent. repaid at par within three or four years. The professional men who are advising on both sides and appearing for the Valuation Board and the colliery companies, and also the mining engineers appreciate that this is the last occasion upon which they will be able to deal with private companies. Once all these valuations are completed, their only future is as civil servants with the National Coal Board.

Finally, there are the Government officials themselves. All I will say is that nobody really relishes the great number of extra burdens which are being put upon them. Therefore, who is to gain if we take away this pressure? I suggest practically nobody. Who will lose? I suggest the taxpayer, on the one hand, and the consumer of coal, on the other. The longer the valuations drag out, the greater will be the cost to the Ministry. The Minister cannot say, "If I employ just one man to do a job for 10 years, that will be quicker than employing 10 men to do the job in one year." If he said that, it would be nonsense.

Let us get this matter dealt with quickly. The longer the proceedings take, the greater is the expense which must fall upon the Ministry and the taxpayer, and the longer will the Coal Board have to fight on their side. Therefore, their costs will go up and, indirectly, the consumer will suffer. The responsibility lies directly upon the Minister and upon this House. It is a very real responsibility which I do not think the Minister acknowledged when he spoke. I hope that my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite will support me if I put down Amendments in order to see that a time table is introduced to speed up not only the Minister but the Valuation Board and the colliery companies themselves.

8.6 p.m.

Mr. Blyton (Houghton-le-Spring)

I listened to the hon. and gallant Member for Fylde (Colonel Lancaster) with interest when he suggested that in our speeches we ought not to refer to the interest charges in the annual balance sheet. If nationalisation is always to be derided by hon. Gentlemen opposite, then it is legitimate to suggest that, instead of the industry showing a loss, we are actually carrying a big burden of interest in our annual balance sheet which goes to the ex-owners of mines.

The right hon. Member for Bournemouth (Mr. Bracken), who is a good exponent on behalf of the owners—and we give him credit for that—talked about the chaos which existed and referred to the creaky machinery of compensation. It is well known to us in the coalfields that, instead of mine owners fighting the miners, they are now fighting among themselves about what they shall have from the global figure allocated to them. We know that when they were adding, up their assets, old plant was renovated, right down to every nut and bolt, and put in the estimate. In the last six months we have seen that the ex-agents have had to go to their old collieries to help the companies to get as much as they can of the global figure. They are fighting among themselves. That is why there has been delay on this issue.

I agree with the hon. Member for Ecclesall (Mr. P. Roberts) that we ought to fix a time limit and say to the ex-owners, "If you have not settled your internal fights by a certain date, we will have to consider what we shall do on this issue." I believe that if the Minister takes that line, he will get a quicker settlement, because the ex-owners will close their ranks in fear that they might lose something.

Mr. P. Roberts

The hon. Gentleman's argument might be right if the colliery owners were allowed even to start fighting among themselves. The trouble is that the Minister has not even blown the whistle yet. He has not created the compensation unit. To blame the coal owners is rather unfair. The delay rests entirely with the Minister.

Mr. Blyton

It is remarkable that the owners could fight and get the global figure fixed at £164 million but that when it is to be allocated it appears that they cannot agree among themselves how much they should draw. The owners must be told that unless they get this matter settled quickly, the Government intend to take action to force them to make a settlement. If the Government took that line, I say—knowing the owners as I do—that they would close their ranks within a week and settle this problem themselves.

This question of compensation has created a lot of bitterness in the ranks of the miners. Let there be no mistake about that. As a party we agreed to pay reasonable compensation, but I think we paid too much.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Bowles)

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman cannot go into that, because it has been decided, and this is purely and simply a matter which arises from the inability of various Government Departments and ex-owners to settle claims arranged under the 1946 Act.

Mr. Blyton

I accept your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but my opinion still stands. The position is quite a simple one. In these interim payments, it must be remembered that we must pay the ex-owners for pits which have been closed as uneconomic and of no use to the nation, and the Bill says nothing about that. I advise the right hon. Member for Bournemouth to tell his friends the coalowners to get this settled—

Mr. Bracken

I do not know why the hon. Gentleman should refer to my friends the coalowners. So far as I know, I have no friends among the coalowners, and I have never in my life had a share in any English coalmining companies. I object to that sneering remark. We are here to do our public duty, and, if it comes to this question of being influenced financially, lots of hon. Members opposite are financed by the miners.

Mr. Blyton

I am not afraid to declare my interest in this matter. I am here to represent the miners and the working classes in my area, and therefore I shall not regard it as a reflection but rather as an honour to stand here representing the interests of the poor downtrodden miners, who were trodden on for so long by hon. Members opposite. I hope that, since the right hon. Member for Bournemouth is leading the Opposition in every coal Debate and every time argues the point of view of the coalowners, his friends will regard it as a compliment that he is defending their interests in that field.

I want to conclude on this note. If the coalowners are falling out among themselves, let them arrive quickly at a share-out of the spoils which have been presented to them, and, if not, let the Minister take courage and tell them that, if the matter is not settled by a specific date, we shall put the necessary legislation into operation to settle it for them.

8.13 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I confess that I had some feeling of alarm when hearing the Minister explain what sums are involved in this Bill. He pointed out that compensation would be paid to companies in respect of costs incurred in fighting for their rights, and when I pressed him he said that these included legal costs. I suggest that, when we look at that statement, it affords some explanation why this matter has been dragging on, and it may give some explanation why it will continue to drag on, not for five years, but for eternity.

The legal costs incurred by the corn-panics and the fees of counsel are going to come out of the costs incurred by the companies, I presume in addition to the other costs, and when I asked the Minister what estimate he had of the amount, he said that he did not have an estimate of the legal costs which we shall have to pay. I suggest that, when the legal fraternity start discussing questions of compensation, here is a trail which they will follow to the utmost unit, and that, instead of this Bill being called the Coal Industry (No. 2) Bill, it should be called the Coal Industry (Compensation for Lawyers) (No. 1) Bill.

Mr. Bracken

What about the Attorney-General?

Mr. Hughes

The right hon. Gentleman refers to the Attorney-General, but I am not attacking him.

The right hon. Gentleman has also referred to the case put up by Lord Reid for the coalowners, and I have no doubt that if Lord Reid had still been a Member of the House of Commons—of course, he has been nationalised without protest and has become a judge—I know from experience of Scottish matters that he would have wrung tears of anguish about the tardy injustice to the shareholders. I represent coalowners who are coming in for compensation under this Bill, and, like Oliver Twist, they are coming for more. I have a great deal of human sympathy even for coal shareholders. When I came into this House, I had just fought a by-election in which the nationalisation of the mines was the issue and in which this question of compensation to coalowners was one of the burning topics.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Both Mr. Speaker and I have pointed out that hon. Members cannot carry that line any further.

Mr. Hughes

I am coming down to the machinery now—that is, the machinery as it affects the compensation to those shareholders to whom the right hon. Member for Bournemouth referred. The right hon. Gentleman referred to quite poor shareholders, but I can assure him that I have looked very carefully over the lists of shareholders of these companies—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If the hon. Gentleman does not obey the Ruling of the Chair, he will not be allowed to resume his speech. The hon. Gentleman has read the Bill, and he must know that it is purely and simply a question of extending a certain time for the payment of interest on sums which have already been fixed. The delay is accounted for by different speakers in different ways, and that is all right, but the hon. Gentleman cannot go into the question of the shareholders.

Mr. Hughes

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but I was enticed away by the wiles of the right hon Member for Bournemouth.

May I suggest that, during the Committee stage, we should look very carefully into the Clauses of this Bill, because under its machinery the coalowners are able to claim for legal costs incurred, and it might be possible to reduce the expenses incurred under this legislation. I believe the matter might be speeded up and that large amounts are likely to go into the pockets of the legal profession if it is not speeded up.

8.18 p.m.

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

If anything, this Debate has proved one thing, and that is that the Government were absolutely right when they decided not to proceed in subsequent nationalisation measures to secure compensation on the same basis as in the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act. The right hon. Member for Bournemouth (Mr. Bracken), in his usual facetious way, dealt with the matter and complained of the delay. From time to time, and particularly on gas, the right hon. Gentleman has been inviting the Government to base the compensation in those other industries on that model, which would have caused a good deal more delay. My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has informed the right hon. Gentleman, on many occasions subsequent to the time when that quotation was made by the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, that the method of dealing with compensation of the coalowners was indeed a very slow process and perhaps a costly one.

I do not suppose for a moment that the hon. Member for Ecclesall (Mr. P. Roberts) was suggesting that the very eminent men who constitute the Valuation Board were deliberately hanging back to provide themselves with fees. They meet three or four times a month, and they are paid the professional fee that is normally paid for that type of work. It is true that the task is taking longer than we envisaged when the principal Act was passed, and the real issue is whether we shall do anything about it or do nothing about it. If we do nothing about it, it seems to me that the coalowners will get no payment at all until the final compensation is given. This Bill is an endeavour to be fair about that, and so, until the final compensation is fixed, these interim payments will go on, though, it is perfectly true, on a somewhat modified basis.

I would assure my hon. Friends on this side of the House that it does not mean extra compensation to the coalowners or any addition, of course, to the global sum, because what is paid is taken into consideration when the final compensation is made. I accept right away that the whole of the delay is not on the part of the colliery companies. The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) asked a question; he did not make the statement, but I am sure he knows the answer, that some two and a half years elapsed before the Central Valuation Board completed its job. There were a number of reasons for that. The setting up of the Board was delayed; and then there were discussions, and it was two and a half years before the job was done.

The machinery in this matter is obviously fairly lengthy. After all, the compensation units to which the hon. and gallant Member for Fylde (Colonel Lancaster) referred are simple in themselves to prepare, but the inventories to be checked are, of course, quite colossal. It may be of interest to the House to know that the average inventory is 100 sheets of foolscap, full of detail, and the longest, some 250,000 sheets. Inventories of that size cannot be checked in a short space of time. The only people who can check them are the people responsible for running the mines. But they have a very big job to do in running the mines and getting the coal, and so on. Inevitably therefore, this work has to be fitted in, and hence the delay.

It would not help very much if we accepted the advice of the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) because what is not paid in 1949 will be paid later. There is no saving, and it does not help the case of the Communist Party if they think that by opposing this Bill they will avoid the payment of compensation.

Mr. Gallacher

Is it not possible, if the machine creaked long enough, that there might be a new Government who decided to introduce legislation to withdraw the £164 million?

Mr. Robens

If the hon. Member for West Fife believes that a Communist Government will be elected for this country it would seem that he could believe almost anything. I would not rely on that myself and oppose this Bill on the basis that perhaps next year there will be a Government who will go back on what this Government did in the original Bill.

Quite clearly there is delay, but very necessarily a good deal of time has to be taken up with all this checking, and I am perfectly certain that the Mining Association would not want this speeded up to the extent that the job was not done efficiently or properly. We cannot be expected to rush it and not make a job of it As my right hon. Friend indicated so clearly, this Bill extends the payments over a period of years. My right hon. Friend did not say that it would be completed in a year; he said it would be completed, or words to that effect, in about a year. It may take at least a year or a little longer. With this Bill, the payments will at least be made; without it, no payments can be made. Therefore, it seems to me that we must accept the Bill and be fair and reasonable to those people whose properties have been taken over because of the nationalisation Measure.

Mr. Bracken

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, may I correct something he said? He assumed that I was in favour of Stock Exchange values as compensation. Certainly not I regard them as a gross swindle.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.