HC Deb 09 May 1950 vol 475 cc319-31

8.59 p.m.

Mr. David Renton (Huntingdon)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 6th April, 1950, entitled the Cheese (General Licence and Amendment No. 4) Order, 1950 (S.I., 1950, No. 583), a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th April, be annulled. The Select Committee on Statutory Instruments has reported this Order to the House on the ground that its form and purport call for elucidation. The Committee has expressed the opinion that the special attention of the House should be drawn to this Order.

Before I go any further may I say how glad I am to see the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food in his place? He and I were both members of the Select Committee for quite a long time. May I remind him that if he wishes to keep his job in the Government he must refrain from talking in his sleep or mentioning feather beds when he is awake. [An HON. MEMBER: "Very cheap."] I am sorry that hon. Members cannot take a pleasant personal reference and an encouragement of hope for the future for the newly appointed Parliamentary Secretary.

The Order to which I refer, and against which I am moving this Prayer, does one thing to which we on this side of the House take no exception, indeed we welcome it. It frees the soft cheese or curd cheese from the maximum price provisions and Cheese (Control and Maximum Prices) Order, 1948, Statutory Instrument 1062. I shall refer to that Order of 1948 as the principal Order because the one against which I am moving this Prayer is an amendment to that Order and there were two previous amendments to which I shall have to invite the attention of the House. So I shall have nothing further to say about the removal of price control on soft or curd cheese. I should also say that the Order against which I am moving this Prayer makes a further—and, we hope, in one sense a final—amendment to Part I of the First Schedule to the principal Order. It is a good thing it does so because, as I shall explain, that Schedule had got into a considerable state of muddle.

I now come to perhaps the more controversial part of what I have to say, and I must tell the House that this Order, against which the Prayer is moved, revokes the Cheese (Amendment No. 3) Order of 1950, Statutory Instrument 317. It does so, however, without prejudice to any proceedings in respect of any contravention of the principal Order as amended by the Amendment No. 3 Order and the previous one, the Amendment No. 2 Order. Our principal matter of complaint this evening is that serious injustice may arise if proceedings are taken—as is indicated in the Order they may be taken—and I shall have more to say in detail about that in a moment. Another complaint about this Order is that it fails to revoke Amendment No. 2 Order which has become unnecessary through the second paragraph of the Schedule to the present Order.

Although, as the House will no doubt be aware and as the Parliamentary Secretary certainly knows, the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments consider several thousand Statutory Instruments each year, it reports on only a few of them to this House. When an Order is reported to the House, it behoves us to consider it very carefully indeed so that we may take notice of what the Committee have said and take advantage of the very careful research which they carry out with the aid of Counsel to Mr. Speaker. It will, perhaps, be easier for hon. Members to follow the astonishing sequence of events in this matter if they have in front of them three short Statutory Instruments of this year—Nos. 279, 317 and 583. By reference to these three Statutory Instruments, I will do my best to explain, as clearly as I can, the trouble which has arisen and I will try to disentangle the muddle.

The trouble began in the Cheese (Amendment No. 2) Order, 1950—S.I. No. 279—because that in that Order there was a serious mistake in Part I of the Schedule. The mistake was that it said that Petit Gruyere cheese was to have a maximum wholesale price of 26s. per cwt. The Ministry obviously meant to say that it was to have a wholesale price of 26s. per dozen boxes, which is a very different proposition. A box contains six portions of Gruyere cheese, with which we are all familiar, and, of course, a dozen boxes each containing six portions is a very much smaller quantity than one cwt. One does not know who was responsible for this strange mistake. It may have been the draftsman, his typist, a printer, or somebody else, but the Order was signed by the then Minister of Food, who must, of course, bear the responsibility.

That same Statutory Instrument, after giving the maximum wholesale price of Gruyere cheese as 26s. per cwt., and doing so in error, went on to give the prices of Kosher and Wensleydale cheese as 298s. and 102s.; and by the use of ditto marks underneath the words "per cwt.," which were put against the price of Gruyere cheese, the Order quite rightly described the maximum prices of Kosher cheese and Wensleydale as being "per cwt."

That Order was made on 27th February. Ten days later the Ministry made an abortive attempt to correct the error which had been made regarding the Gruyere cheese. They published an amending Order known as The Cheese (Amendment No. 3) Order, 1950, S.I. No. 317. Unfortunately, however, that amending Order, although intended to correct the mistake, did not do its job properly. It corrected one mistake but it made two further mistakes. This is how it came about.

The No. 3 Order merely said that the principal Order, as amended, should be further amended by substituting in the case of Petit Gruyere cheese, "26s. per doz. boxes" instead of "26s. per cwt."—so far so good; but that meant that the ditto marks in the No. 2 Order became referable to "per dozen boxes" instead of to "per cwt.," as it should have been made referable. This meant that Kosher and Wensleydale cheese, which are normally sold by the cwt., had maximum prices attached to them "per dozen boxes." Of course, that was nonsense.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

What is Kosher cheese?

Mr. Renton

The hon. Member will have to consult somebody who has eaten it. As I have said, in trying to correct one mistake, the Ministry made two further mistakes and the confusion became worse confounded. For that the present Minister of Food must bear responsibility because he signed the Amendment No. 3 Order. When the Select Committee saw these two Orders —and they saw them together, I believe—when we reassembled after Easter, they called upon the Ministry to submit a memorandum, which is to be found on page 3 of the first Report which the Select Committee has made to this Parliament. Before proceeding to consider that memorandum, I would elaborate my objections to the Order against which we are praying.

My first and principal objection is that this No. 4 Amendment Order revokes No. 3 Amendment Order without prejudice to proceedings already started as a result both of No. 2 Amendment Order and No. 3 Amendment Order. It should never have done such a thing and it would obviously be disgraceful if proceedings were to be taken against some innocent trader who took either of the Ministers at their word, that is to say, when they published these mistaken prices. Bearing in mind that No. 3 Amendment Order was in operation from 11th March until 9th April, there must have been a great deal of confusion among the already bewildered traders, who have a great deal to put up with in sorting out these complicated Regulations and the rationing system. The confusion lasted from 27th February, when No. 2 Amendment Order was published, until 9th April when No. 3 Amendment Order was revoked by the Order against which we are praying.

As a result of this confusion the position, as I see it—the Parliamentary Secretary will no doubt correct me if I am wrong—is that from 11th March until 27th April it was forbidden to sell Petit Gruyere for more than 26s. per cwt., which is a fantastically low price. Presumably, traders during that time broke the law and the Ministry allowed them to do so during that fortnight. That such a thing should ever have happened is what brings the law into contempt and what we should try to avoid, if we can, by carefully scrutinising delegated legislation. A further result is that from 11th March until 9th April it was legally permissible to sell Kosher cheese or Wensleydale by wholesale at so much per dozen boxes instead of at so much per cwt. wholesale as it is normally sold. In case hon. Members are in doubt as to what sale by wholesale means, I would invite their attention to paragraph 1 of the principal Order of 1948 where we find that the definition, which, I feel, must have been drafted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself, is: Sale by wholesale means any sale other than a sale by retail. With regard to Kosher cheese and Wensleydale, obviously nobody could have been, or should be, prosecuted for selling at above any particular price per cwt. In other words, no one should be prosecuted in respect of any price he may have charged, wrongly from the moral point of view, perhaps, but, from the legal point of view, fully justified.

In view of the peculiar circumstances which arose, I feel that we should obtain from the Parliamentary Secretary an indication of what proceedings are pending and whether any of them are in respect of selling cheese above the maximum prices actually stated in error or intended by the Ministry to have been stated correctly. Those are the two circumstances with which he ought to deal. It would be only in respect of infringement of Amendment Orders No. 2 or No. 3 that our complaint would arise, but it is a serious matter in respect of those two Orders.

My next question and ground of complaint is: Why is it that in order that the matter might be tied up properly Amendment No. 2 Order has never been revoked? It is no longer necessary because the substance of it is contained in the now correct Schedule to Amendment No. 4 Order, against which we are praying. Therefore, Amendment No. 2 Order is quite unnecessary, and one would have thought that if Amendment No. 4 Order had been properly drafted it would have revoked Amendment No. 2 Order.

My final point compels me to complain about the way in which the Ministry of Food answered the questions so properly put by the Select Committee. That Committee is, after all, a Committee of this House, and I assume that I should be right in saying that a Select Committee, in asking a Government Department to submit a memorandum, is acting on behalf of this House. The Select Committee is representative of all parties. Party opinions are very rarely expressed there. It so happens that in this Parliament it is a Select Committee equally composed of Government and Opposition Members.

If hon. Members will look at this memorandum, which is on page 3 of the Committee's first Report, they will agree, I think, that it is about as evasive and tendentious a document as could possibly have come out of a Government Department in reply to an inquiry from this House. I regret to have to say, but I feel it my duty to do so, that the tone of the memorandum is not in accordance with the high standards of what I would call the intellectual probity which we are accustomed to expect from our Civil Service. I am very sorry to have to say this, but I feel that I should be failing in my duty if I failed to invite the attention of the House to it. I have not much complaint about the first two paragraphs of the memorandum, though I think that the last sentence of paragraph 2 is rather mincing words. It says: The effect of the amendment made by the above Order, as the Committee has observed, would appear to be to alter the wholesale price of Kosher cheese and Wensleydale cheese. It might have been better if, instead of that, it had stated: The effect of the amendment made by the above Order was, as the Committee has observed, to alter the wholesale prices of Kosher cheese and Wensleydale cheese. That was undoubtedly the effect. However, we can perhaps let that pass. In relation to the matters to which I am coming it is a small point. My real objection is to paragraph 3, which I shall read in full. It states: In fairness to the draftsman it should be added that he took the view and still maintains that there is an arguable case for holding that, since S.I. No. 317 did no more than substitute a new item I in Part I of the First Schedule, relating to Petit Gruyere cheese, and did not purport to alter the prices of Kosher and Wensleydale cheese, which were already fixed as per cwt., those prices were not affected. The validity of that contention is entirely exploded by the next sentence, but in a most peculiar way: While that view may well be mistaken,"— "may well be mistaken" my foot— as the Committee holds, and as the Legal Adviser also holds, it is submitted, with the greatest respect, that it cannot fairly be stigmatised as carelessness I think that really does call for comment.

If I may just refer to the last two lines of paragraph 4 of the memorandum, it says: … and in future it is intended to avoid the use of ditto marks with their obvious possibilities of error. There is a slight sign of repentence. But ditto marks can be very useful. They can save a lot of printing—[HON. MEMBERS: "And speaking."]—yes, and speaking too; and with a little more foresight and care a good deal of the time of this House might have been saved and the strain on my throat avoided. To make a sweeping statement in that way about the use of ditto marks is surely unwise. Ditto marks are used, especially in Schedules to legislation, throughout the whole of our Statute Book; and provided that there is reasonable care and not blatant carelessness in the way those marks are used, there is a great deal to be said in favour of their use. Over the years it may slightly reduce the cost of printing, especially when the enormous circulation of Bills and Acts of Parliament is recalled.

Mr. Messer (Tottenham)

Does the hon. Member know that ditto marks are the same marks as are used to indicate an inch?

Mr. Renton

I do not think I can give the hon. Member an inch on that point because ditto marks are not, as a rule, preceded by a number. When that symbol for an inch is intended to be used to represent an inch it is always preceded by the number of inches which it is meant to indicate.

I do not wish to labour this matter—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Well, I have presented this matter in what I hope is a sensible, non-party and conciliatory spirit; and if I may say so, I do not think it is up to hon. Members opposite, when a Member of the Opposition is doing his duty to the House in drawing attention to a palpable and ridiculous mistake in delegated legislation, to try to discourage him in any way, or to make facetious and noisy interruptions.

May I end this part of my speech by saying that in the complicated details of modern administration it is not surprising if small clerical and printing and drafting errors are made? It is not surprising, it is perhaps unavoidable, and it is indeed excusable, if people are prepared to bring the trouble to an end as quickly as possible. What is inexcusable is to go to great pains, and cause a lot of trouble to this House, by trying to cover up those mistakes, as has been attempted in this case. The evasive tone of the memorandum which I have already read out has been followed by the manner in which the Department has tried to put the matter in order.

To show what I think might have gone into the memorandum may I draw the attention of the House to a Statutory Instrument which came to my hand only today, in which the Board of Trade——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but is this really relevant to the particular Order before the House?

Mr. Renton

With respect, if I may develop my argument it may seem to be, and I would say why I should like to draw attention to the explanatory note to the memorandum. The second paragraph says: For ease of reference"— those are the words I complain against most— this Order consolidates Part 1 of the First Schedule to the principal Order, as amended, which sets forth the maximum prices of certain cheeses on sales other than to a manufacturer. I complain against that phraseology. I was about to draw attention to a case in which the Board of Trade have most admirably corrected an error and explained in their memorandum that they have done so.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Gentleman appreciates that the explanatory note is not part of the Order?

Mr. Renton

That is so. I appreciate that it is not part of the Order, but I submit that it would be in Order for this House to discuss the explanatory note in the same way that we discuss Financial Explanatory Memorandums to Bills and to Statutory Instruments. I respectfully submit that I should be in Order. As you have just come into the Chair, Mr. Speaker, I think I can save you some anxiety and trouble of giving a decision on a point about which you have not had the advantage of hearing the whole of the argument, by saying that I do not propose to refer to the further Statutory Instrument.

If the Ministry has been imbued with a desire to help the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, as they should have been, and if they have merely said, "This Order is to correct mistakes made in two previous Orders," and if they had done that before the Committee got on their track, then the trade would have been saved a lot of trouble and I should not have had to—[An HON. MEMBER: "Weary the House."] The hon. Member almost takes the words out of my mouth. For these reasons, I do not consider that this Order clears up satisfactorily the administrative tangle created by two careless mistakes of two Ministers.

9.28 p.m.

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

I beg to second the Motion.

I have some sympathy with the Parliamentary Secretary in having, as I think he will this evening, to put on a white sheet, because he was not a member of the Government when this Order was made. On the other hand, he was a member of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments when they made the Report to which my hon. Friend referred. He is here tonight, with a certain dual loyalty; but he will have had the great advantage of service on that most valuable Committee which will enable him to appreciate the real importance of the points made by my hon. Friend.

In particular, I should like to direct his attention to what I am afraid I must describe as the untruthful explanatory note. The second paragraph of the explanatory Note to Order 583, starts: For ease of reference this Order consolidates … It does no consolidation whatsoever; it merely repeats a previous table with two very important corrections—altering "cwt." to "dozen boxes" in two places. That is not consolidation, and it is certainly not for ease of reference. The previous Order, which this Order amends, purports in its explanatory note to correct a textual error. I do not know what they think they mean by "textual error," but it does, in fact, correct a very important mistake, that of putting "cwt." instead of "dozen boxes."

It is very objectionable, when explanatory notes are taken in good faith by the general public and hon. Members of this House, that the Ministry should make any attempt to mislead them and cover up their mistakes, and I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary, having had the experience which he has had of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, will give attention to this matter.

9.31 p.m.

Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)

I am not certain, with the greatest respect to the two hon. Gentlemen who have already spoken, whether the issue is very clearly before the House, but the point can be put very simply. There was a misprint in Statutory Order No. 279, and there was a further misprint in Statutory Order No. 317. For that reason, a Prayer is directed against Statutory Order No. 583, and hon. Members may ask why this particular Order was chosen. The answer very simply is that it is this Order which corrects the two misprints.

If the House were to carry this Motion, if those of us who have put our names to it were to be successful—and this is why I do not intend to press the matter to a Division—it would lead to the entire upsetting of the whole cheese rationing system, which would be most undesirable. It is not really a very suitable means of punishing a Minister by threatening to deprive the people of this country of their proper supply of cheese. However, it does seem to me that this Order provides an opportunity for us to consider, in relation to this particular Order and the difficulties which we experience, whether we ought not to take some steps in order to tackle the problem raised by the whole question of dealing with Statutory Orders in this House.

There is certainly one issue which led me to put my name to this Motion. Any issue of this sort which deals with food makes it absolutely essential that there should be, at the earliest possible moment, some degree of finality. The grocers up and down the country do not quite appreciate the legal niceties of the "ditto" sign, and, with the House so finely balanced as it is, the whole Order might be annulled and tomorrow there may not be any cheese ration at all. These are the sort of possibilities that make it very desirable that, when a Prayer is put down, it should be debated on the same day, and it was for that reason that I added my name to this Motion.

Of course, it sometimes happens that hon. Gentlemen associated with such Motions are not in their places, as has happened in the past. I might give one example of the case when the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) had a Prayer on the Order Paper on 28th March, but did not move it on that day because the House sat so late. It was down for the next day, and hon. Members were in their places, but the hon. Gentleman did not move it then because the House rose so early. It is obviously desirable that some steps should be taken to see that these Prayers are resolved once and for all, upon the day when they are put down.

9.35 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Mr. Frederick Willey)

It is in a very real sense this time, that I crave the indulgence of the House, because I find myself in a somewhat unusual position. Only yesterday, I believe, I was a member of the Select Committee whose report to the House has instigated those hon. Members who have been praying against this Order tonight. Let me say at once that my Department agree that a mistake was made. I fact, in spite of what has been said, we readily admitted that mistake. Whether it was a felicitous way to admit it as a textual error or not, I do not know, but we made it as plain as possible that we were admitting our mistake. Unfortunately, in endeavouring to remedy that mistake, the draftsman, in drafting the Order, invoked the Select Committee to call the attention of the House to the fact that the Order was not sufficiently lucid. Again, I readily and properly accept that point of view. Let me say at once that I very much appreciate the work of the Select Committee and enjoyed the privilege of serving on it, particularly in the last Parliament, and that as far as I can I will ensure that the advice of that Committee is closely followed in the Department.

I wish to deal with some of the points raised. One was that we ought to have revoked Amendment No. 2 Order. In fact, that does not arise because the Order does other things as well as substituting one schedule for another. The remainder of that Order, of course, remains in force. Another point raised was on the memorandum of the Ministry of Food. I think I have already indicated that we do not admit an error on this occasion because, rightly or wrongly, the draftsman took a particular point of view. In my opinion that was a mistaken point of view.

As regards the ditto marks, I think it is a little unfair to complain that we have made mistakes through the "dito" marks, and then to complain when we give instructions to avoid "ditto" marks in future. In spite of the eloquence of the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Renton) we intend to pursue the policy of abandoning the use of "ditto" marks, and I hope that that at least will prevent my ever having to give a similar explanation to the House.

On the question of paragraph 3, I very much appreciate the point that has been raised, and I assure the House that we are most anxious that no injustice, serious or otherwise, should result from this mistake. We had to incorporate paragraph 3 in the Order because this not only applies to wholesale sales, but to retail sales. Of course, there was no error, confusion, or misunderstanding as far as retail sales were concerned. I think it right and proper that I should give an assurance to the House that there will be no prosecution of any wholesaler in respect of any alleged offences committed by wholesalers during the period in question. I would go a little beyond the period suggested by the hon. Gentleman. I would take the period as from 2nd March. There have, in fact, been no prosecutions instituted during that period, and instructions have been given that no prosecutions should be taken.

I do not think I can do more than reiterate once again that we made a drafting error. Whether sufficiently frankly or not, it is not for me to say, but we admitted our error. We have now, at any rate, and to the satisfaction of the whole House, I believe, put that error right, and we hope that we shall learn from our experience.

9.40 p.m.

Mr. Renton

I wonder if I might, as the mover of this Prayer, exercise what I understand is a right to make a second speech, very briefly, to deal with the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing), as well as to assure the Parliamentary Secretary that we shall not be inviting the House to divide tonight.

The hon. and learned Member, if I understood him rightly, has made some complaint about delay in bringing matters such as this to the House.

Mr. Bing

My complaint is shortly this: Hon. Gentlemen opposite—I do not say the hon. Gentleman himself, but those with whom he is associated in this particular Prayer—put down a Prayer and then, when hon. Members have come here prepared to argue and deal with the matter, find, without any notice, that the Prayer has been withdrawn. That is an objectionable practice.

Mr. Renton

I am sure the House will appreciate that discussion on these problems in order to be effective should, if possible, take place at times convenient to hon. Members. Hon. Members putting down negative resolutions to move a Prayer to His Majesty have the right to choose the day for discussion. It so happens that today I have been very fortunate; I have chosen a day on which the discussion was able to start at a time obviously convenient to a great many hon. Members, whom we are glad to see here as a result. But it may very well be that the matter to be raised on the Prayer is a very complicated one, which would be a very great strain upon the attention of hon. Members at certain times of the night, and it may be much better not to proceed with the discussion on that occasion but to proceed with it on another occasion. At any rate, I am sure that the criticism of the hon. and learned Gentleman is quite irrelevant to anything that has taken place tonight, and that is the main reason why I venture to say what I do.

In view of the assurance the Parliamentary Secretary has given, I do not propose to ask the House to proceed to a Division. Nevertheless, I do feel that this matter could have been tidied up very much better by his Department. Especially is that so with regard to prosecutions, the matter about which he gave an assurance. There had only to be another sub-paragraph in paragraph 3 as a qualification of the general saving in that paragraph with regard to prosecutions and there might never have been the trouble, doubt and anxiety which has arisen in our minds tonight about the possible injustice arising from these errors.

Question put, and negatived.

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