HC Deb 23 May 1950 vol 475 cc1865-8

3.50 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd (Birmingham, King's Norton)

I beg to move, in page 3, line 32, to leave out from "Act" to "the" in line 34.

We are moving this Amendment because of certain anxieties that we feel, and in order to give the Minister an opportunity of explaining the effect of the words proposed to be left out. We are somewhat concerned lest these words should give an opportunity of by-passing the provisions of the Measure, because it appears to be the case that the National Coal Board could come to an agreement with the parties interested which really need not be upon the lines of the Measure at all., At any rate, our anxiety is that it would make it possible for the National Coal Board to make an arrangement which, while satisfactory to the National Coal Board, might not be satisfactory to the individuals concerned.

The Minister may reply that our anxieties are misplaced because we have not correctly read the effect of the words; or he may say that it is unlikely that the Coal Board would do that; or that it is unlikely that the individuals concerned would be prepared to agree to unfavourable arrangements. Earlier I raised a somewhat similar point with regard to the power of the Coal Board, and the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) kindly gave information from his experience of the practical questions of subsidence in his own area, and said that they were getting on very happily with the Coal Board. That information was naturally of interest, and I will admit that it gave me an enormous degree——

Mr. Tom Brown (Incs)

It was the benefit of experience.

Mr. Lloyd

I quite agree; and I was just about to thank the hon. Gentleman for giving us the benefit of his experience upon that matter. I was hoping he might also be prepared to listen to an experience which I, perhaps, may be able to contribute on this subject, because although hon. Members from mining districts have great knowledge of the practical methods of subsidence, this is also relevant to this matter—the way in which the nationalised boards behave, and the conditions under which the nationalised boards act in regard to individuals.

It does happen, hon. Members may be surprised to know, that I have been a member of a nationalised board; and I think that, perhaps, there are not many hon. Members who have been in that position. It is true it is one of the older nationalised boards—a board, in fact, set up by a Conservative Administration, which proves the fact that we on this side of the Committee are prepared to consider these exceptional expedients in the matters in which they are in the public interest. I refer, of course, to the British Broadcasting Corporation. I take the view—I do not know what the views of hon. Members may be—that the British Broadcasting Corporation is, broadly speaking, a very efficiently administered concern, and I do know that, in regard to all such matters, the greatest care is taken. One always had a sense, as a governor of that great Corporation, of the immense power of the Corporation in regard to individuals, and I believe it has always been the case that for that reason it has always taken the very greatest care.

The point I want to make is that the public boards are entities of enormous power with regard to particular individuals; and, of course, the British Broadcasting Corporation is a mere midget in financial power compared with the National Coal Board. It has always been a matter of the greatest concern to the House of Commons to protect the individual in regard to what, I believe has been described as "over-mighty subjects"—which may be not at all a bad description of the National Coal Board. Therefore, I ask the Minister to tell us his view of this matter; whether he feels that our anxieties are misplaced; and whether, if he feels that they are not misplaced, he is prepared to accept this Amendment. At any rate, we should very much like to hear an explanation from him.

The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker)

The right hon. Gentleman and the Committee understand that the repairs to be done under Clause 3 will not normally be done by the Coal Board itself. The Coal Board will make a payment. The object of the words which the Amendment proposes to leave out is to make it quite clear that if an owner prefers that the Board should carry out the repairs then he should be free to make an agreement with the Board to do so, rather than carry out the repairs himself and ask the Board to make a payment to him towards the cost which he incurs. This makes it quite plain that if an owner wanted to make that agreement, then no objection would arise.

However, I think it is true that the words proposed to be left out may not be necessary to attain that end. It would be a perfectly proper arrangement, and without the words being there the owner and the Board could agree to do it. Moreover, I think it is theoretically possible, that with these words left in the Board might make some less proper arrangement to contract out, and therefore I do not really mind leaving them out if hon. Members opposite think it worth while leaving them out. There is not the slightest danger, in my opinion, that the Board will ever take that course. If it once started contracting out there would be such objections that the Board would have to give it up. I do not think these words matter either way, and I am quite prepared to leave them out.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

We are grateful to the Minister for his condescending concession. Of course the Amendment is both necessary and wise. The right hon. Gentleman hinted that the Coal Board is capable of doing a side deal. He might also have said that it is capable of doing an "under the counter" deal. It is not quite good enough for the Committee to say, "Well, we are leaving the public to the mercy of the National Coal Board." The Minister has given us an assurance, which I gladly accept, that the Coal Board itself is not going to be responsible for repairing the damages caused by subsidence. I think that that is very good, if I may say so, because the Coal Board does not even now get down to its principal job, which is to produce coal instead of twists of tree trunks, slates and broken stones.

On the undertaking given by the Minister we, being a democratic party on this side of the Committee—I think I may say so on behalf of my hon. Friends behind me—may be prepared to accept the Minister's offer. Of course, some of my hon. Friends may wish to make their contributions to this discussion. However, we are very grateful to the Minister for showing a certain reasonableness in these matters. So long as he recognises with us the limitations of the Coal Board—which he has done by saying that those gentlemen will not carry out the repairs—and who are we to disagree with him?—we are grateful to him. He may get better advice from my hon. Friends behind me, but, at any rate, so far as we are concerned, we shall not press this Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Bracken

I understood that the Minister had accepted our Amendment, so I did not think it was necessary to have it put from the Chair. We wanted to relieve you, Major Milner, of your very heavy labours.

The Chairman

Well, I have now put it from the Chair and the Amendment has been negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.