§ 3.43 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. James Griffiths)
I beg to move, in page 2, line 20, to leave out "and Central."
On the Committee stage of the Bill I promised to consider whether the area in which the Corporation were permitted to operate under the Bill should be that specified in the Bill—East and Central Africa—or should be confined to East Africa. As promised, I have considered the arguments that were then put forward, and I now bring forward the Amendment, which means that the Corporation's operations will be confined to East Africa. I think that this will meet the desires of the House.
§ Captain Crookshank (Gainsborough)
I am very glad that the Government have found it possible to accept this Amendment, because, of course, the same Amendment was moved from this side during the Committee stage. It is always very satisfactory for an Opposition to find that its suggestions are accepted, as they have been in this case.
I cannot understand why the words "and Central" ever got into the Bill at all. It must have been because of some inattention on the part of Ministers or the draftsman, because it was quite clearly laid down in the White Paper that the Corporation do not contemplate embarking on any other schemes in East Africa or elsewhere. If words mean anything, the White Paper shows that a decision has already been taken by the Corporation, at any rate in present circumstances, not to expand their activities beyond those which were laid down in the White Paper, which has been the subject of previous discussion in the House. As I say, we on this side saw no reason why the words should have crept into the Bill, but since they have crept in, we are very glad to see them kicked out by the right hon. Gentleman at our instigation.
446 In essence this is the right course to take, because now we have learnt that the very high purposes and the very wide range of operations which were envisaged in the original Act of 1948 can no longer effectively—and, in our view, properly—be carried out by the Overseas Food Corporation. It is just as well at this stage of re-organisation to make it quite clear, not only that the Corporation are to lose in future all the functions which Parliament originally gave them to extend their operations all over the world, but also that the functions left to the Corporation—that is to say, in their activities in Africa—should be very restricted.
We know from the White Paper that instead of grandiose plans of two or three million acres being put under cultivation, we are now contemplating only a quarter of a million acres or so, all of which, at present at any rate, is in East Africa. It seems just as well to make doubly certain that the Corporation cannot expand further and that, therefore, these words should be taken out of the Bill.
I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman has seen the force of the argument which we put up. While, obviously, it must be disappointing to the Overseas Food Corporation that their scope has been so much reduced, from the point of view of the taxpayer and of the House it is eminently satisfactory that we should have this complete limitation of their powers in the Measure which we are now passing. For that reason, we on this side very much welcome the Amendment, because not only is it sheer common sense, but it also happens to have been propounded by us in the first instance.
§ Mr. Dodds-Parker (Banbury)
I support what has been said by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank), and I stress what was said from this side on the Committee stage that this does not mean that we are not interested in Central Africa. We all appreciate that there is a great deal to be done there, but we do not believe that the Corporation which is being re-formed is the right instrument for doing it. It may be that in due course the new Corporation will come into the Colonial Development Corporation. In the meantime, we are all agreed that this is the method of carrying out the work which we want to see done in that part of the world.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
What we say here is reported elsewhere. Of course, we are interested in Central Africa, where there is a great deal to be done; and doing it will mean risks.
§ Mr. Rankin (Glasgow, Tradeston)
I do not think that hon. Gentlemen opposite will claim the whole credit for the decision of my right hon. Friend to drop the two words which the Amendment proposes to delete. They will recall that during the Committee stage the retention of these words was queried from this side by myself and, I think, one or two of my hon. Friends.
Hon. Members opposite will, I am sure, recall that my objection to the retention of the words "and Central" was due to the fact that they raised the question of the representation of the Nyasaland Government on the Corporation. I stated then that if representation was allowed to the Government of Tanganyika, then by the insertion of the words "and Central" we automatically raised the question of representation by the Nyasaland Government. My right hon. Friend has decided, I think wisely, to leave out these two words. Therefore the problem I propounded does not seem to arise. I trust that hon. Members opposite will accept my assurance that there was at least doubt on this side of the House also in regard to the retention of these two words
§ Captain Crookshank
Of course the hon. Member made the point, but it was not a case of "one or two" but of a lone voice.
§ Mr. Rankin
I am sorry, but I was speaking from recollection. However, although I stood alone, I am sure I spoke for a number of hon. Members.
§ Mr. Rankin
The whole of Scotland at least. I welcome the decision of my right hon. Friend to drop these words.
§ Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North)
While accepting the assurance of the hon. Member for Tradeston (Mr. Rankin), I want him to realise that this Amendment was proposed after consideration from this side of the House and it was because the Colonial Secretary gave an assurance that he would have the matter looked at that we did not press it to a Division. It 448 causes me to wonder what the hon. Member for Tradeston and all those who have verbally supported him would have done if the matter had been pressed to a Division.
I appreciate the decision of the Minister because it gives us an opportunity of recognising that the Government under this new scheme are trying hard to concentrate on the East African venture, whereas there were many of us who had some disturbing feelings in allowing a more general reference, which gave the possibility of deviation of energies from the present East African scheme. I therefore support my hon. Friends in expressing appreciation because we recognise that the Minister in this case has met us quite considerably. We only wish that he could meet us similarly in other respects.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Mr. Lennox-Boyd (Mid-Bedfordshire)
I beg to move, in page 2, line 22, at the end, to insert:and the initial investigations under this subsection shall not be carried out by members of the Corporation or by persons employed by the Corporation.Clause 2 of the Bill, in subsection (1) as now amended by the last Amendment, charges the Overseas Food Corporation:with the duty of securing the investigation, formulation and carrying out of projects for production or processing in colonial territories in East Africa of foodstuffs or agricultural products other than foodstuffs, and for the marketing of foodstuffs or such products.I hope the House will accept the Amendment, which certainly involves no political considerations. Its purpose is to ensure that the first investigation to be undertaken under the authority of the Overseas Food Corporation shall be carried out by people who do not belong to the Corporation, who are not managers of the Corporation, or who sit on the Board of the Corporation. It appears highly desirable that in this initial investigation there should be an independent approach by people with no interest in justifying the past actions of the Corporation, or the present proposals in the White Paper, or in this Bill.
Had we had the inquiry for which we asked the Government, it may be that we could have had an agreed Bill on the future project in East Africa. It would have been highly desirable if the House, then the Committee, and now the House 449 again had come to an agreed decision which would have been very much to the advantage of this country and our fellow citizens in Africa. That agreed decision alone would give security to the staff employed by the Corporation. Unfortunately, the Government rejected that inquiry and have chosen what is in effect a partisan solution and, because of that, we cannot have an agreed approach to the problems of the Corporation which we were anxious to achieve.
That was a decision of the Committee and I cannot refer to it now, but we have an opportunity of salvaging something from the wreck of our previous hopes and of having an impartial investigation at an early stage. The first investigation should be conducted by people who do not belong to the Corporation. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is likely to say that already there have been two inquiries into the working of the Groundnut Scheme, but both were really in the nature of internal audits by people responsible to the Corporation. In each case the chairman was a member of the Board of the Corporation. Although they have had support from representatives of the Government of Tanganyika it is obviously to the advantage of the Government of Tanganyika that they should have some kind of scheme. However informed they are, it cannot be said that they can be expected to approach the problem quite dispassionately and objectively.
The people who sat on the former inquiries, however admirable, highly skilled and informed about tropical agriculture, should have been called as witnesses to the inquiries and not themselves have formed the panels of the inquiries. There was great scope for them to give information and to bear testimony before an impartial inquiry. I would once more commend to the House the two independent reports on tropical agriculture which we have had in the course of the last year, the Report of the West African Oil Seeds Mission and the Report on the Mechanisation of Tropical African Agriculture. Both these reports are in the nature of impartial inquiries and both carry a great deal more value because of their impartiality.
We should have an initial investigation carried out by people with no loyalty to the Corporation but with only a desire 450 to serve the British Empire as a whole, and particularly the people of East Africa and the United Kingdom. The sort of people we would have in mind to undertake an investigation of this kind would certainly include some people well versed in mechanised tropical agriculture. I should not be in order in referring at length to an Amendment discussed at another stage, but my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, North (Sir W. Smiles) suggested the Department of Agriculture in Canada as being people peculiarly qualified to give advice on problems of large-scale mechanised agriculture. We should have liked to see someone nominated by the Department taking part in an investigation of this kind.
We are not suggesting that future investigations carried out under the authority of the Corporation must be by people who have no loyalty to the Corporation, but that the first investigation should be carried out by a quite independent people. Bearing in mind tragic losses and the sums of public money which were written off—and today is the concluding day of this tragic process—I hope we shall have full agreement on both sides of the House with this very modest proposal.
§ Mr. Rankin
I wonder if the hon. Gentleman would give us a little guidance on one point? How long does he think this investigation would take and what would be the effect on the work of the Corporation while the investigation was going on? Would the work of the Overseas Food Corporation continue while the investigation was proceeding?
§ 4.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Lennox-Boyd
It would depend on the instructions given to the inquiry as to how long the report would take. I would hope very much that it could report in a comparatively short time. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, North, in making his proposal, suggested that they should be obliged to report in 12 months, but I am hoping that an investigation of this more limited character could be carried out a great deal quicker. I do not accept the view that an inquiry of so modest a kind would disturb the work of those on the ground. On the contrary, the knowledge that a report of this kind was coming from impartial people and would be given universal support by Parliament and the country, 451 would be of encouragement to the people on the ground, who would in the long run very much benefit from the proposal.
§ Captain Duncan (South Angus)
I beg to second the Amendment.
I should like to support what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) has said. This Clause deals not only with investigation, but also with the formulation and carrying out of projects. The Amendment deals only with the investigation. The independent investigation will not be dealing with the existing project, but with the new project for which this £6 million is being laid aside by the Government. There seems to be a good analogy for this proposal from what happens in the case of mining. A mining company that has information on a mining proposition somewhere in the world does not use its own engineers but gets a firm of consulting mining engineers to make an independent report. In the case of an oil project, it is not the oil men but an independent consulting oil surveyor who makes a report.
§ Mr. Rankin
The hon. Member will keep in mind, no doubt, that there was an independent investigation into the original scheme. An inquiry was made into the possibilities and to advise us what actions should be taken. The hon. Member is therefore now condemning the results.
§ Captain Duncan
The fact that there was an independent investigation in the past does not necessarily condemn the principle of having an independent investigation when the organisation is on the ground. As a matter of fact, it was the method by which the scheme was carried out rather than the investigation that is to be condemned. I hope, therefore, that the Government will accept the Amendment, if not the actual wording, at any rate the principle, and that they will agree to the idea that we should prospect the new project in Africa by independent investigators before any of the £6 million of the taxpayers' money is spent.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
It is quite clear where we stand in regard to this scheme. This Clause to which this Amendment has been moved, lays down what are the powers of the Corporation and the functions with which it is charged. The Corporation is charged with the dutyof securing the investigation, formulation and carrying out of projects for production or pro- 452 cessing in colonial territories in East Africa of foodstuffs or agricultural products other than foodstuffs, and for the marketing of foodstuffs or such products.It was made very clear, by my right hon. Friend on Second Reading, in the White Paper, and during the debates on the Committee stage, that the Corporation do not contemplate any scheme other than the present scheme. The Bill authorises the Corporation to go on on the understanding that the only scheme in contemplation is the scheme outlined in the White Paper. I wish, therefore, to examine the Amendment in this context.
I was not clear from the speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) whether he intended what the hon. and gallant Member for Angus, South (Captain Duncan), suggested, that this initial investigation should be an investigation into the scheme outlined in the White Paper. I say that because the hon. and gallant Member spoke about the £6 million of taxpayers' money it is estimated this scheme will cost over six years and said that none of the money should be spent until there has been an investigation. I understand that the effect of the Amendment, if it were carried, would be that we should stop where we are now and do nothing further until there is this initial investigation which may last for 12 months. Is that the meaning of the Amendment? Does it refer to the existing scheme, or to schemes beyond?
§ Mr. Lennox-Boyd
Our Amendment refers, of course, to the plans outlined in the White Paper. The Government themselves state in the Bill that the Overseas Food Corporation shall be charged with the duty of "securing the investigation, formulation and carrying out of projects," which projects come within the ambit of the White Paper. Our Amendment refers to the projects outlined in the White Paper. Meanwhile, there is nothing to stop the carrying on, on a care and maintenance basis, of any work now going on in East Africa.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I wanted that to be made clear. The House has already on two occasions settled this issue. It was settled on Second Reading when the Opposition moved an Amendment calling for an inquiry into the scheme contained in the White Paper. The House rejected that Amendment, and the Bill was given a 453 Second Reading on the definite understanding that it authorised the Government to proceed on the scheme outlined in the White Paper. This is an attempt on Report to undo something that was done by the House on Second Reading and in Committee, when we had the same kind of proposal put forward, in much more specific words, in an Amendment moved by the hon. and gallant Member for Down, North (Sir W. Smiles), who suggested that the investigation should be made by certain bodies and that it should begin next year and be completed by January the following year.
It is clear that if this Amendment were accepted there would be an investigation, but we do not know who would make the investigation, nor do we know to whom they would make their report. Presumably they would make their report to the Corporation, because this is an Amendment to a Clause which charges the Corporation with the duty. There would be an investigation into the scheme outlined in the White Paper, the investigators would report to the Corporation, and the Corporation, presumably, would give their view whether it was to be accepted or not, and then pass it on to the Secretary of State, who would then come back to the House. In the meantime, the hon. Member suggests that the work should be put on a care and maintenance basis.
One thing we have learned from all that has happened is that talk about putting a scheme of this kind, in its present condition, on a care-and-maintenance basis is nonsense. What would it mean? Now, while we are debating this scheme as outlined in the White Paper, we are, as part of it, clearing 40,000 acres in the Southern Province. Is that to stop? If this Bill is given its Third Reading, we hope that it will soon be an Act of Parliament. Are we to say, "Stop the work in order that this investigation can take place?" Are we to stop that clearing? If the felling were completed before this suggested investigation, if what has been done had to be put on a care-and-maintenance basis, and no more work was to be done until the investigation had been carried out, the land would in a short time go back to bush and be lost.
Let us be frank. This is a wrecking Amendment, and if carried it would 454 destroy the whole scheme. We have already decided, after full and lengthy discussion in this House, both on Second Reading and in Committee, to reject proposals for an inquiry. I can only ask the House to reject such a proposal now. It is perfectly clear that all this Amendment means is, "Stop now, have an investigation, then the investigators will report to the Corporation and the Corporation will be asked to express its views." In the meantime, everything must stop and that would wreck the whole of the Bill. Therefore, I ask the House to reject the Amendment.
§ Mr. Rankin
On a point of order. I should like your guidance, Mr. Speaker. So far as I recollect, the House has already rejected the proposal contained in this Amendment on two previous occasions. Is it now in order to debate it a third time?
§ Mr. Speaker
That is a reflection on me. I selected the Amendment. I considered that it was a new proposal and was, therefore, in order.
§ Mr. Rankin
May I say that I asked for my own guidance, and sought to cast no personal reflection on you, Sir?
§ Mr. F. Harris
I cannot understand the conclusion which the Secretary of State has drawn in this matter. I was concerned with the proposed new Clause dealing with an inquiry. The right hon. Gentleman surely appreciates that this Amendment follows on the proposal in Clause 2 (1), in which the Government themselves lay down that:The Overseas Food Corporation shall be charged with the duty of securing the investigation.…This Amendment merely states how we consider that investigation should be carried out. The Colonial Secretary has "passed the buck" to us and asked what we seek to do by this Amendment. He must appreciate that he himself is responsible for the word "investigation." It is in his Bill. Therefore, I should like to ask him what was his view of "investigation" when he put that word into the subsection. The Colonial Secretary must have had something in his mind. We understand whatformulation and carrying out of projects…455 means. Investigation means a form of inquiry of some kind.
We realise that the White Paper must have had something to do with someone else's previous investigations, but those are over, and what we are now considering is the new position which will apply after 1st April. It is an artful stunt to pass back to us the onus of explaining what is meant, but the Colonial Secretary must make up his mind what he desires. The word "investigation" is his. I am suggesting that when he included that word he had something in mind and intended to have some type of inquiry, of investigation.
We expand that proposal by saying in our Amendment, which covers an entirely new point and has nothing to do with the suggestion which was previously put forward, that an entirely new inquiry—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Hon. Members opposite may moan about it because they do not want an inquiry. Hon. Members do not want any inquiry into this Groundnut Scheme if they can get away with it. That is what is worrying them. The White Paper makes it clear that they do not want an investigation.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)
We shall welcome a full inquiry provided that it goes into Cabinet proceedings during the war.
§ Mr. Harris
Let us keep to the subject we are discussing.
It is the Colonial Secretary's own stipulation, in this subsection, that there shall be a duty of investigation. We, therefore, say in this Amendment that if an investigation into a scheme of this kind is to be carried out, for whatever reason the Colonial Secretary has in mind, it is crazy that it should be carried out by the employees, the same staff, who are working the scheme as a whole. That is all this Amendment suggests. Surely each one of us realises the sanity of that proposal. Why does one have auditors and other people to go over one's factories and give one a considered report after investigation? One does not use one's own staff when one wants such an inquiry. That is implied by the very word "investigation."
I suspect that what has happened here is in line with what has happened in con- 456 nection with the whole project all the way through. I think "investigation" has got into the Bill by mistake because if it has not the Colonial Secretary can surely tell us why it is there. What does he want? He is the one who is stipulating that there shall be investigation. We are only asking that if the scheme is investigated it shall not be done by the staff engaged in it but by investigators from outside.
I am, frankly, very anxious to see any type of inquiry that will give confidence to the public and this House as a whole. I should like to see this new scheme going ahead from the point of view of the employees themselves, the people in Tanganyika and everyone concerned. The Government have made a mistake in this matter. Having said that, I return to the issue raised by this Amendment. The Government have planned to do something; we know that they are trying to carry out some new scheme and that this Bill is the basis of it.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
I thought I had made it clear, first, that the schemes we now propose to carry out are set out in the White Paper, after investigation in two cases, Kongwa and the Southern Region, by the working parties mentioned earlier. I understand that the position sought to be established by this Amendment is that we should now stop and have another investigation before we go on with what has already been decided.
§ Mr. Harris
I am sorry, but the Colonial Secretary must understand that this proposal is in his Bill. This Scheme is to operate from 1st April. It is his word that it shall be the duty of the Corporation to investigate—
§ Mr. Harris
The Minister of Food makes enough mistakes. We have had enough trouble about those issues in this matter. With the greatest respect, I suggest that Ministers should know something about the words they put in their own Bills. [HON. MEMBERS: "Tell us."] I am doing so. The Government have put in the Bill the word "investigation."
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
Of course there is investigation. The Scheme outlined in the White Paper is the result of investigation.
§ Mr. Harris
I am glad that the Secretary of State has interrupted in that 457 way because if he is "kidding" himself he is not "kidding" us. One of two things has happened here. Either the word has got into the Bill by mistake, which frankly I believe to be the case; or else the Minister knows nothing about what he wants to investigate. If he means what he says by including "investigation," it is our contention that one would not carry out a sensible investigation into anything like this project with one's own staff. If any other word had been used that would be quite understandable. "Investigation" means either that, or an inquiry, and if that is so it should be carried out by people other than employees of the Overseas Food Corporation for the sake of the employees of the Corporation themselves, for their own satisfaction and contentment.
I therefore strongly support this proposal. It is no good the Colonial Secretary trying to say that this is another twist to get some inquiry again. It is a follow-up of his own words. As the Colonial Secretary and the Minister of Food and everyone knows, they have made such a mess of this whole thing, one way and another, by the things which have been put into various papers, that this is either another error or they do not intend to carry out what they themselves have put in this Bill. But if they do, we want an impartial set of people to carry out this investigation.
§ Mr. Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)
The right hon. Gentleman used the wrong argument in rejecting this Amendment. He gave a number of reasons—which no doubt sounded very good to him but which sounded less valid to us—why there should be no further investigation. I consider we are entitled to ask, as indeed my hon. Friend has asked, why this word "investigation" still appears in Clause 2 of the Bill?
The right hon. Gentleman says there has been an inquiry in the Kongwa and in the Southern Province, and why, therefore, do we want another investigation? We are entitled to ask for what purpose does the word "investigation" appear in Clause 2 of the Bill. To what is the new investigation to be applied? Is it to be applied to the Kongwa, the Southern Province or what? If there is to be no investigation we ought to leave the word out. I do not understand why the Government and the right hon. Gentleman 458 have any doubt about accepting this Amendment.
In view of the unbroken record of broken promises and false hopes, and the millions of pounds spent on the groundnut fiasco up to date, I should have thought the right hon. Gentleman would have been anxious to start off, so to speak, all clear. Either in the Second Reading debate or when speaking on one of the Clauses in Committee, the right hon. Gentleman himself referred specifically to his, quite natural, desire to start off with a clean slate and to wipe out the past. We understand that. If we were in his position—and I am glad we are not—we should all want to do exactly the same.
I cannot imagine any stronger reason for an independent investigation than the natural desire of the right hon. Gentleman to start off with a clean sheet and to wipe the past clean. With the best will in the world, any investigation carried out by senior members of the Overseas Food Corporation, who themselves have had an unhappy association with the past, cannot possibly seem to be either wholly impartial or wholly dispassionate. That is impossible. On both psychological and practical grounds I should have thought that in his own interest the right hon. Gentleman would be well advised to accept this Amendment.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
Again we hear a reference to an investigation by members of the Corporation and by no one else. This scheme is the result of investigations into the areas, including the Southern Province where the biggest development is taking place, and those investigations were undertaken by two working parties. It is true they were set up and presided over by the Corporation, but the working parties included people of very wide experience and considerable knowledge. During the Second Reading debate I read out the names of the members of the working party and asked hon. Members opposite whether they accepted them as being people with real knowledge and experience who were competent to express an opinion.
I do therefore say to hon. Members opposite that this scheme in the White Paper, which is the only one contemplated, is the result of considerable investigation by two working parties which contained a majority of members who were not members of or employees of the Corporation.
§ Mr. Mott-Radclyffe
We clearly understand that point. But what the right hon. Gentleman has not explained, and perhaps one of his hon. Friends will explain, is why, if the scheme in the White Paper is the result of two investigations which have already taken place, there is this word "investigation" in Clause 2 of the Bill and to what does it apply?
§ Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)
The background of this discussion is the fact that the country and the House have no confidence in the ability of the Government or their competence to handle this further project. They have forfeited the confidence of the country. Whatever may be their view about the Opposition, the Government must know that the nation wants an inquiry, even if the Government does not. I should have thought that in those circumstances the right hon. Gentleman would have given us an answer which was a little less "pernickety" than the one offered. It was a "pernickety" answer. He has taken the Clause by word and comma and so on. We all could do that. I could do it For example, if it is his argument that we must look at the Clause precisely as it stands, well, let us look at it.
When this Corporation starts its work on 1st April it will look first of all to the Act which sets out its duties. The principal duty of the Corporation is set out in Clause 2, so that the first thing that the Corporation will do is to look at Clause 2. What does it find to be its duty? Not to do any felling, not to do any clearing at all, according to the word of this Act, but to securethe investigation, formulation and carrying out of projects…What projects? For felling? For clearing? No,for production or processing…of foodstuffs or agricultural products…So if the right hon. Gentleman wishes to be detailed and "pernickety" so can we. We have the right to ask that he amends this Clause to include the words, "clearing" and, "felling." But I am not pressing that because, as the House understands, I am saying that his is a "pernickety" argument.
Let us proceed to the next stage. Why does the right hon. Gentleman seek to include this word "investigation" if his intention is that the Corporation shall be informed that one of the things they must 460 not do under any circumstances is to investigate? That is a very odd thing, and if that is what he says, he had better have an Amendment now to delete the word "investigation." Then, I hope, we shall have another Amendment to put it in again.
Let us take this a stage further. It was stated that this is a wrecking Amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd), speaking of this Amendment, said that while this investigation might be going on things should be proceeding on what he called "a care and maintenance basis." What do we mean by that? I am sure that my hon. Friend did not mean that everything should stop. That is absurd. If we are harvesting we go on harvesting. If we are clearing we go on clearing, and if we are in the middle of felling we go on. Nobody but a lunatic would suggest stopping all that. But while proceeding with that, we do not start any vast new enterprise. That is what it means.
§ Mr. Stewart
With respect, the right hon. Gentleman is again being "pernickety." That is not what is meant here at all and so it is by no means a wrecking Amendment. On the contrary, it is my conviction that this is the only way to prevent a wreck. Why does not the right hon. Gentleman look at this from the point of view of the country as a whole? Supposing he could not accept this Amendment, and I would understand some of his arguments, could not he do this—and I think we should be much satisfied—could not he himself indicate to the House that he would try to get some expert person or persons to go out there within the next couple of months and make a report to him?
Today at an official luncheon I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Hardie, who is perhaps the world's leading expert on dry-land farming in Saskatchewan. He is about to go to Ceylon on loan from 461 the Canadian Government to the Government of Ceylon to advise them, after investigation, upon their dry-land farming problems. The problem in Kongwa, the Southern Province and that part of the world generally, is not very different from that on what are called the Canadian dry-land farms. I have seen both places. There are vast areas with very little rainfall. Professor Hardie told us how tricky is the problem of cultivation in the prairies where there is only a relatively small rainfall. That is precisely the problem in Kongwa.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to say that while he cannot give way on this Amendment, because of Government policy, he recognises the view of the House, which represents in a large measure the view of the country; and that, therefore, in deference to that view, he will undertake within the next month or two to pick out a couple of leading experts who have nothing to do with the Colonial Office or the Corporation, but who are recognised experts on these problems. I ask him to send them out to look at this business and to advise him. That could be done within a couple of months. Why does not the right hon. Gentleman do that? I appeal to him in the interest of the Scheme, and in the interest of democratic Government and honest administration to make that gesture to the House.
§ Mr. Donald Wade (Huddersfield, West)
I hope that the Minister will either accept the Amendment or give effect to the spirit of it by making some arrangement such as the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson Stewart) has suggested. This is not a wrecking Amendment. I understood from the Minister that if an investigation is carried out by a working party it will not interfere with the carrying on of the Scheme, but if there is to be an investigation by—
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
The Scheme is being carried out now and this Bill will continue it for the period outlined. This is as a result of a working party, and it is clear that the Amendment would stop it.
§ Mr. Wade
But everything did not stop because a working party was making an investigation. Presumably, further investigation is contemplated. The Bill charges the Corporation with a duty. It is not 462 merely an option, but a duty to secure an investigation. The suggestion is that independent persons should take part in the initial investigation. That is the essence of the proposal which is a reasonable one. It has been called a modest proposal, and I am sure that it is. But underlying this proposal is a matter of principle about how one ought to deal with these commercial projects which are owned and controlled by the State.
We all wish this Scheme to be a success. It is intended to benefit not only ourselves, but the people who live in Colonial Territories. Nevertheless, it is a commercial enterprise. Perhaps the word "enterprise" is not the right one in view of what has occurred: I will call it a commercial undertaking. We want it to succeed. There is no doubt that if this was a private concern which had got into financial difficulties, and it had been agreed that a modified scheme should be continued, the very minimum that the shareholders and creditors would insist upon would be some kind of impartial investigation in which outside people should take part.
We have gone very far already in this Bill in granting special privileges to this Corporation. The principle to which I have referred is that a commercial concern owned and controlled by the State should not enjoy special privileges. That principle is important. We have gone quite a long way already in failing to apply that principle, but, in a modified way, the amendment would ensure that it is applied here. Therefore, on grounds of principle I think that this suggestion is right. I do not think that any argument has been advanced to suggest that these independent advisers would be other than helpful, and I am sure that it would create greater confidence in the country if this course was followed.
§ Mr. Selwyn Lloyd (Wirral)
The attitude of the Government to this Amendment is typical of their attitude to the whole Scheme. They have never at any time been willing to admit that they are wrong and that some change needs to be made. I believe that the origin of this subsection is that somebody merely incorporated in this Bill a chunk from the 1948 Act without really considering the effect of the words. If the Minister was honest with the House he 463 would have to say, after taking advice, that that is the explanation of this very curious subsection; that it is not what he intended, and that he would look at the matter again and have the words altered in another place if necessary.
If we look at the actual form of these words, we see that they are ridiculous in relation to what the Minister proposes to do. The Clause says:The Overseas Food Corporation shall be charged with the duty.…Presumably, that has regard to something which they are to do in the future. What investigation is to take place in the future? I think, so far as this Scheme is concerned, there is none at all. The Minister will probably have to admit that his only power to carry on this Scheme is under subsection (1) of this Bill and if he proposes to carry it on without an investigation, I am not at all sure that the whole thing will not be ultra vires, because the statutory duty laid upon him is…the investigation, formulation and carrying out.…Apparently, he is saying that he has not the slightest intention of carrying out that statutory duty in connection with this scheme. I think that in that case the whole scheme will be ultra vires.
Clearly, there has been a mistake in this matter. The wording of the 1948 Act is not appropriate to present circumstances. If the Minister is obstinate and insists that the words are appropriate, he must concede that there must be an investigation. If there is to be an investigation, why not have it done independently? If the investigation supports the scheme, will not public confidence be reinforced and will not everybody be more favourable towards it?
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
I have made two or three attempts to make this clear. May I try again? The scheme we are proposing now is the one outlined in the White Paper. That scheme is the result of an investigation conducted by the Corporation. To assist them in that investigation they appointed two working parties, one for Kongwa and one for the Southern Province. They asked them to investigate and report to the Corporation on what schemes should be conducted in future. As a result of their consideration, the 464 Corporation put forward a scheme which, with certain modifications which we explained on the Second Reading of this Bill, we have accepted.
Therefore, there has been an investigation, and it is as a result of it that this scheme is now put forward. If in the future any schemes were put forward, there would be similar technical investigations made by the Corporation. I asked whether this Amendment referred to existing schemes or future schemes. We are not discussing future investigations on future schemes. It is clear from what was said by the mover of the Amendment that the effect of the Amendment would be to have another investigation of the type which has taken place. Whilst we were conducting that further investigation, everything would stop.
§ Mr. Selwyn Lloyd
If I may deal with that intervention, I think there are at least two points which present themselves in it. First, in regard to the substance, it is quite true that there may have been these previous investigations; there may have been working parties and so on; but what the right hon. Gentleman will not appreciate is that all that took place before the full horror of the Groundnut Scheme had burst upon the country, and before it was realised that a vast sum of money had been wasted, a result, which I think has done grave damage to colonial development. From the psychological point of view, will the Minister not realise how much benefit he would give to his new scheme if it were to be fortified once again by independent advice and support? I am perfectly certain that, from the point of view of the country as a whole, it would be a very great benefit to colonial development, which is the object which we all have in view.
So far as interim policy is concerned, I think that has been dealt with by my hon. Friends, and I do not propose to say anything more about it at this stage. It would be quite possible to have this independent investigation in a short space of time, and to continue working on the present basis during the time it was taking place. We come back to the legal point, which the right hon. Gentleman has not dealt with. Under what powers is he proposing to carry on his new scheme? According to the wording of the Clause, 465 before he can do that he must investigate. He does not get any powers until the passing of this Bill, and, when this Bill becomes an Act, it is then his duty to investigate, formulate and carry out—
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
May I put it to the hon. and learned Gentleman that this is an Amending Bill to amend the Act, and that, therefore, there would be continuation from the Act to the Amending Bill, which, together, will provide the authority for carrying on. We are not repealing the whole of the Act, and, therefore, the authority is the authority contained in the present Act.
§ Mr. Selwyn Lloyd
If the right hon. Gentleman will examine the original Act more closely, he will see that, as far as the powers of the Corporation to carry out schemes are concerned, they are solely contained in Clause 2 of this Bill. I invite him to look at it and to see what has happened, because the draftsman has taken a chunk of a section from the original Act and put it into this Bill. I suggest that, so far as carrying out the Groundnut Scheme is concerned, the Minister's only power after 1st April is derived from this Clause. Once the Minister concedes that he, in other words, concedes that he was wrong in his last intervention, and I really believe that he was wrong. Let us suppose, at any rate, that he was wrong, because we are trying to produce a workable Bill, and there is no particular party point in this business of draftsmanship. I am simply seeking to produce a Clause that will mean something, because I do not think the present one means anything at all.
If the Minister's only power to carry out the Groundnut Scheme is the authority derived from this Clause, how does he suggest that he has power to go on with the scheme without another investigation? I think he will be in serious danger if he does not look into the wording of this Clause and have a proper Amendment made, but that is a question of the letter of the law. The real point of substance is that there should be another independent check before this scheme goes forward, and from which he would gain an immense addition to public confidence. If he does not do so, I cannot think that he will be doing any good service to the cause of colonial development.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Gammans (Hornsey)
The Colonial Secretary has been working up a certain amount of synthetic heat about this matter. He knows perfectly well what we want to do. We certainly do not want to wreck this Bill, but we are out to see that this new enterprise does start off under efficient auspices. We want the people to have confidence in it, but the attitude which the Minister is taking will certainly give no one any confidence whatever in the new enterprise.
The right hon. Gentleman does not seem to realise that the Overseas Food Corporation is a thoroughly bankrupt and discredited organisation. It is bankrupt in a way in which I have never known any other organisation to go bankrupt. They ask us to write off more money than they have actually spent. They are not even paying threepence in the pound to their creditors, but now they are asking for £6½ million more money. It is perfectly fantastic, and we should reject any demands put to us until there is a proper investigation of this new Scheme.
If the Colonial Secretary wants to know our candid opinion, it is that we have no confidence whatever in his administration, and we are not satisfied with the investigation that has been carried out. Why should he not be businesslike in this matter? What gain is there to anybody in allowing a public corporation to go on in a way in which no one would ever allow a private business to continue?
The only people who are opposing this Amendment are hon. Gentlemen opposite, because they believe in public corporations. We have always had far less faith in them than they have had, and now we have precious little faith at all in them; but if hon. Gentlemen opposite themselves believe in these public corporations, why do they not insist on this new venture starting off under proper auspices? It should be for hon. Gentlemen opposite, and not us, to demand this investigation. Why is it that every corporation set up by the Government, whether it concerns coal, electricity or anything else, has to surround itself with mystery and blanket itself against all forms of competition? Hon. Gentlemen opposite ought to make sure that this form of farming is the right form. Do they imagine that the British public will 467 go on for ever putting up the money for one dud scheme after another, without having proper investigation? It is hon. Members opposite who should be putting forward this Amendment.
So far as we are concerned, from the narrow, political point of view this will merely provide us with a good speech for the weekend. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman should accuse us of trying to wreck the Scheme. If he himself has any confidence at all in it, he should be the very first to welcome the fullest investigation.
§ Mr. Dodds-Parker
I hope that the Colonial Secretary will answer the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd). I think that the right hon. Gentleman has been in too much of a hurry to jump to the conclusion that this is a wrecking Amendment. If it were, I think that would be a reflection on the Chair for having selected it. Further, the right hon. Gentleman has not seemed able to understand the points which lie behind it and which have been put forward several times from this side of the House.
The last explanation which the Minister gave was not relevant to the points which my hon. Friends have made, because there is the inescapable fact, from which the right hon. Gentleman cannot get away, that the Overseas Food Corporation, according to the Bill,shall be charged with the duty of securing the investigation, formulation and carrying out of projects.It is all very well talking about going back to the 1948 Act and saying that that Act, together with this Bill when it is passed, will provide the authority, but it seems to me that there is a further point to those which have already been made. Although it is stated in the White Paper that there shall only be schemes as already set out in the White Paper, this Clause gives authority to the Overseas Food Corporation to go ahead with future schemes. Quite apart from any points already made from this side of the House, I put it to the Colonial Secretary that, if there are any future schemes proposed to be undertaken, the Amendment now before the House would be very relevant to those future schemes.
The right hon. Gentleman has set up an Economic and Advisory Council, with 468 some very distinguished people on it, and there is another group from which he may select individuals to go out and have a look at this Scheme. Whatever his advisers have said, he does seem to jump to conclusions, and not to understand the real point and effect of the Amendment. If he will have another look into the matter, he will see that, in regard to any future development which may be envisaged, there is a great deal to be said for this Amendment.
§ Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will really have a look at this Amendment, because to say that we are trying to wreck the Clause is absolutely wrong. All we are trying to do is to make it read somewhat differently. The Clause at present reads:The Overseas Food Corporation shall be charged with the duty of securing the investigation,…and we say that that investigation should not be made by the Corporation or by anybody representing it. All we are asking the Minister to do is what any business concern does. If they get an idea that something is not right in the factory, they do not send members of the factory round; they get an outside expert to walk round the factory, to talk to the people at work, to watch the machinery at work and to see what is happening, and make a report accordingly.
We are merely asking that when the Minister makes the investigation which he says is necessary, he should have it made by somebody outside with expert knowledge, and that he should accept that advice. We shall shortly be asked to vote a sum of money. All we are saying is that before that money is voted, we should have an independent inquiry, carried out by an expert who knows his job, and not by people whose interests are in the Corporation.
§ Mr. John Grimston (St. Albans)
In his speech rejecting this Amendment, the Colonial Secretary used the argument about delay; but, of course, there is no question of delay in this, and even if there were, his argument that delay means a lot of land going back to bush is really a very old and discredited argument. Indeed, his own plan is to put 60,000 acres at Kongwa into a state which he would call going back to bush, and it has certainly been shown over and over 469 again that there is nothing in that argument at all, and indeed that in certain parts it is highly beneficial that that should happen.
His second point was that the scheme in the White Paper is the only thing in contemplation. I would point out to him that the scheme in the White Paper is by no means the only thing in contemplation. I know he has not been out there yet, but he is proposing to visit East Africa, and I hope he will go to Urambo to find out for himself whether what he said about the scheme in the White Paper being the only project in contemplation is true or not. I think he will find it is not.
There are two or three proposals in that particular area which are not mentioned in the White Paper but which are under very active contemplation. For instance, we know about the tobacco project there. Perhaps I ought to mention that I have an interest in tobacco growing in Africa. If that experiment is a success, quite obviously the proposal will be made greatly to expand that particular form of cultivation, which will mean the spending of large sums of money, which may or may not be justified, but which we think should be investigated more closely by an independent body.
Again, there is a large project under consideration at Urambo to drain the Malagarasi swamp and to spread the water over a vast area of land, an operation which would involve a very heavy expenditure. If that scheme is to go forward, surely it should be investigated by an impartial body. There is nothing in the Bill as it stands at present to prevent that kind of project being undertaken at some time in the future, and we are only seeking to say that such projects should be impartially investigated. They may or may not be sound projects, but let us have somebody who is not interested in them to report on whether they are or not.
There is a third project which, also, was not mentioned in the White Paper—the growing of rice in the small valleys or dambos which it is proposed to dam. Such an undertaking would cost a considerable sum of money. In these circumstances, therefore, I put it to the Minister that his arguments for rejecting this Amendment are, in the first place, discredited by his own plan in the White 470 Paper, and, secondly, are based on a misapprehension on what is, in fact, being investigated at this moment and which is not mentioned anywhere in the White Paper. In view of what has been said, I hope the Minister will accept the Amendment.
§ Mr. Rankin
When the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) moved his Amendment, he at least moved it in reasonable language. I am sure, therefore, that he will have some measure of regret for the fact that his camp followers have joined in the debate in somewhat different language. We have witnessed this afternoon what can only be described as a series of filibustering speeches in order to try to sabotage the working of the Bill.
§ Mr. F. Harris
On a point of order. Is it right, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman should accuse hon. Members on this side of the House of attempting to sabotage the Bill?
§ Mr. Rankin
I listened to all that was said by hon. Members opposite, and, quite frankly, my honest opinion is that all that we have witnessed so far can be described by the words I use. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade) described this as a modest Amendment. I think it is completely immodest, because it is not clothed in the least vestige of thought. To me, the issue here is a perpectly simple one. The Overseas Food Corporation is a business body, charged with carrying out certain business purposes. Is there any hon. Member on the other side—
§ Mr. Rankin
I am afraid I cannot thank my hon. Friend for that most unhelpful remark.
Is there any hon. Member opposite who is prepared to say that a company about to embark on a business venture first of all selects some independent body of investigators to examine the project before it enters into it?
§ Mr. F. Harris rose—471
§ Mr. Rankin
Any company would assume that to be their own particular responsibility. They would not embark upon such a venture unless they had first of all investigated it themselves. From what I know of business firms, they like to carry out their own investigations and to please themselves. After all, it is their responsibility. As I have said, this Corporation are a business body and they are being held responsible, as are most other business organisations, for any investigation that is necessary before they proceed to carry out any particular project.
Looking at it merely from the point of view of accepted practice, there is nothing in the Clause that invalidates the proposal which my right hon. Friend is making. It is perfectly simple from that point of view. We are charging them to do certain work, and, at the same time, we are laying on them the responsibility—and the proper responsibility—for, first of all, investigating what they propose to do. I think that conforms to sound business practice, and because I think that, I say that the Amendment as moved and the speeches made in support of it are, as I have described them, sheer fillibustering.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Henry Strauss (Norwich, South)
I think the hon. Member for Tradeston (Mr. Rankin) has neither read the Clause nor listened to what the Minister said, because if he looked at the Clause he would see that the Overseas Food Corporationshall be charged with the duty of securing the investigation.…If he had listened to the Minister he would have known that the Minister had said there would be no investigation before carrying on with this particular scheme.
§ Mr. Strauss
I was present. I apologise to the Minister for not having been here for the whole of the debate.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
The hon. and learned Member has attributed words to me that I never used. I did not say it was to go on without any investigation. My whole point was that it was going on after investigation.
§ Mr. Strauss
Let me make myself clear. I meant without further investigation after the passing of this Bill into law. The Law Officers will, I think, confirm what I am now saying, that the words,The Overseas Food Corporation shall be charged with the duty of securing the investigation,…speak from the date at which this Bill receives the Royal Assent and comes into force. Therefore, in saying that there shall be an investigation it means after the passage of this Bill into law.
I am going to confine myself entirely, in the short remarks that I shall make, to this single legal point. I do not wish to repeat any of the other points made, but I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that the legal point has more substance than he has hitherto attributed to it. It is quite true, as the right hon. Gentleman said, that this is an amending Bill, and when it has been carried into law it will be an amending Act. But that does not mean that one need not look at the terms of the statute; and if the right hon. Gentleman will look at Clause 2 as it now stands he will see that it does two things, among others. In the first subsection it says,The Overseas Food Corporation shall be charged with the duty of securing the investigation…and so on. As far as that is concerned, I think the right hon. Gentleman will realise that the investigation there referred to must be an investigation after this Bill receives the Royal Assent.
We then come to the further question whether it is possible for the Minister to carry on with the present scheme under the Act that this Bill is amending. I think it must have been some such idea as that that he had in mind when he made his last important intervention. But I think he will find that it cannot be carried out under the principal Act because he will find that Clause 2 (2) of the Bill says that,Subsection (1) of Section 3 of the principal Act shall cease to have effect…When this Bill receives the Royal Assent and comes into force, the old powers cease to have effect and the new powers only refer to an investigation after the passage of this Bill.
§ Mr. Strauss
I am most grateful to the hon. Member. Therefore, if the right hon. Gentleman wishes to do what he says he wishes, namely to carry out the scheme he has described without further investigation, then he must amend the present Clause. That is the answer to the very admirable and brief intervention, "So what?" which I appreciate.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
If the hon. and learned Member will allow me, may I say that first of all there is the existing Act which charges the Overseas Food Corporation, as does the Bill, withSecuring the investigation, formulation and carrying out.…under Section 3 (1, a) of the principal Act. Under that power the Corporation ordered an investigation, as I have already described. As a result of that investigation and proposals submitted by the investigators, proposals were formulated. These proposals are now in operation—felling for example. As from the coming into operation of this new Bill they will continue. One of the major changes in the Bill is the transfer of responsibility to the Colonial Office on 1st April. The duty of investigating and formulating will exist under the old Act up to 31st March and will exist under the new Bill, when it becomes an Act, from 1st April.
§ Mr. Strauss
That duty may have existed under the old Act until the subsection concerned ceases to have effect under this new Bill. But what I am casting doubt about is the power of the Minister, in view of the terms of the new Bill which will be the new Act, to proceed with the present scheme he has outlined without further investigation.
I have the highest possible respect for any legal advice that may have been given to the right hon. Gentleman by the Law Officers of the Crown. I am sorry for his sake, and for the sake of the House, that neither of them is present at the moment. But if the Minister can assure the House that the point has been fully considered by the Law Officers, and he is advised that these powers undoubtedly exist, I should not wish to press the point further. I can only say that I am putting the point forward with complete good faith. It seems to me, on the wording of the old section together with this new Clause, that the doubt which my hon. and learned 474 Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd), put forward a few minutes ago does exist, and I support what he said.
§ Captain Crookshank
I think that through no fault of his own the Minister simply has not had the time to apply his mind to the problem raised by this Amendment. He only saw it this morning, owing to the way the Bill is being rushed through. We only finished the Committee stage late on Monday night, too late to put down Amendments on the Order Paper so that the Minister could see them yesterday. Therefore, it was only today that he could see what we were proposing in the way of Amendments.
He has, therefore, not unnaturally, fallen into the easy trap, when seeing the word "investigation," of remembering that somewhere in his brief there was something to the effect, "We do not want any more investigation." That little parrot keeps coming out of its cage and is the theme of all we have heard from the Minister. [An HON. MEMBER: "He did not read from a brief."] The Minister is clever enough to learn it off by heart, but the fact still remains that the arguments he keeps producing against investigation are not apt arguments on this Amendment.
Let the Minister look at the Amendment once again. The Amendment itself is narrow, but the debate has run over points of great importance. The Amendment says that if there is to be an investigation at any time into these matters the persons carrying them out shall not be members of the Corporation or their employees. That is a self-contained proposition which I should have thought the Minister would gladly accept, because if one is to have any investigations at all it is much better that they should be carried out by people who are impartial, who are known to be impartial, and who are seen to be impartial.
None of us denies that the members of the working party were experts and reasonable people to be brought into consultation in matters of this kind, but we think that people from outside are the right members of an investigating body rather than these people, who are more suitable as witnesses to go before such an investigating body, than to be members of the investigating body itself.
475 That is the point of this Amendment. If there is an investigation in the future, let it be carried out by persons who are completely impartial, who are not members of the Board of the Corporation and are not employees of the Corporation. The Minister was anxious to refute the suggestion that there ever would be any investigation at all.
First of all, he said that the House had been over this question twice already and that it had been settled by the House and the Committee, but that is not so. What was rejected on Second Reading was our reasoned Amendment stating that we did not wish to proceed with the Bill until there had been an investigation. That has nothing to do with this Amendment. Similarly, on the Committee stage my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, North (Sir W. Smiles), put down a new Clause which said that at a certain date, later—specifying the date—there should be an investigation carried out by people who were to be nominated by specific nominating authorities. That is quite a different thing.
This Amendment says that if there are to be any investigations at all they must be by outside, impartial persons. Apparently the Minister is not prepared to accept the Amendment, but, since he made a statement to that effect, the debate has gone a great deal wider, because two of my hon. and learned Friends have taken up a point which the Minister himself started—about whether there was to be any investigation at all. In turning down this Amendment the Minister once again reminded us that there had been working parties and that, as a result of the working parties, the White Paper had been produced. He said it was upon the basis of that White Paper that the Overseas Food Corporation would carry on in the future.
That may or may not be the case, but there is nothing about it in the Bill. That is merely the administrative effect of decisions taken by the Corporation and by the Minister. Nothing in this Clause says that, as a result of the investigation by the working party and as a result of White Paper No. 8125, these proposals are to be carried out. There is nothing in the Bill to say that; in fact, the Bill is not dealing with that problem. It deals with quite different matters and hon. 476 Members have only to read the short title of the Bill to see what it does deal with.
The right hon. Gentleman pointed out, quite correctly, that there had been these working parties and he said that, because of them, investigation in the future was no longer necessary. He said that what investigation needed to be done had already been done and had, in fact, finished. But is it really finished? I understood—and I was rather reinforced in my view by what was said by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. J. Grimston)—that there were still investigations going on in different parts of East Africa. I should like to know whether it is not a fact that Mr. Frank Sykes, who was one of the independent members of the working party, is now out in East Africa investigating still further some of the possible projects which might be joined up with the plan under the White Paper. As far as I know he is out there and I should like to have that confirmed, because if it is so it tends to disprove what the right hon. Gentleman said earlier—that all the investigations had been concluded and that there were to be no more.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
When I began my speech I asked the right hon. and gallant Gentleman a question. I wanted to know exactly what we were discussing and whether this Amendment was intended to deal with any further development, other than the existing scheme, or whether it applied to the existing scheme. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman said, and the hon. Member who seconded the Amendment repeated it in even more definite terms, that the intention of the Amendment was that there should be a further investigation into this scheme. I asked whether that did not mean that everything would stop except work under what was called a care and maintenance basis—everything would stop until there had been a further investigation. It was the Opposition, who moved the Amendment, who put upon it the interpretation to which I have replied.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Captain Crookshank
The right hon. Gentleman has said that two or three times, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Mr. Stewart), pointed out, it would not mean that everything would stop. No one thinks for one 477 moment that it would, least of all the right hon. Gentleman. The point is whether or not this Clause applies immediately to any further investigation. Our reading of the Bill is confirmed by that of two of my hon. and learned Friends, who have stated that if the Bill is passed in its present form there must be an investigation.
I am not a lawyer, but I am quite prepared to take their advice on this matter because, for once in a way, legal advice marches with what appears to be the meaning of the words. I know that sometimes it does not, but on this occasion it does. The Bill says,The Overseas Food Corporation shall be charged with the duty of securing the investigation.If that does not mean that they have to have an investigation, it does not mean anything at all.
My hon. and learned Friends have pointed out that the doctrine which the right hon. Gentleman adduces is one of continuation because these words are lifted from a previous Act. That does not make any difference because after 1st April, owing to the way in which this Clause is drafted and owing to the words in the original Act, it will be left mandatory on the Corporation to have an investigation.
Until the Law Officers of the Crown can tell us that that is wrong, I am quite prepared to accept the view of my hon. and learned Friends. I know that lawyers can differ on these matters, but that is also the commonsense reading of the Clause. We know that the right hon. Gentleman does not want an investigation because he has said so several times. He has said that he has already had one. The words of the Clause say that even if he has had hundreds he will still have to have another. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Well, that is what I am advised, and no lawyer has contradicted it yet. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman's legal friends will contradict it.
As we understand it, there will have to be another investigation. The right hon. Gentleman does not want another investigation at the moment and, from his point of view I do not blame him; he has just had one which satisfies him. 478 But if he does not want another investigation then I beg him to have another look at this point between now and the time when the Bill gets to the Statute Book.
We have had no doubts that we should like another investigation, but we were defeated in that submission on the two occasions upon which we fought it—on Second Reading and on the new Clause. We should still like to have an investigation, but if the right hon. Gentleman does not want to have one I beg him to have another look at the Clause and to make quite certain that he is not going to get one, because we are advised that these words mean that he is going to get one. If he is, and if he cannot help himself because of the wording of the Bill, let it be an investigation of the kind for which we ask in this very narrow Amendment—by outside people and not by members of the Board or their employees.
Until the legal advice to the Front Bench is known, I do not know that we can carry the matter very much further. The right hon. Gentleman has been told what is the effect of the Clause by two of my hon. and learned Friends who are here to help us with legal advice. The right hon. Gentleman and myself are not lawyers, but my hon. and learned Friends are here and they have tendered their advice.
§ Captain Crookshank
I agree; on this occasion they have not been paid for it. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that we should not discuss the matter any further now because we cannot reach a conclusion until we have had advice contradicting what my hon. and learned Friends said, and there is no one opposite capable of giving it to us. I am not satisfied that it can be contradicted. We do not want to spend much longer on this point. Obviously, it would be impossible for us to move manuscript Amendments to take out these words because we are on the Report stage, when the Chair does not normally accept manuscript Amendments.
§ Captain Crookshank
What has that to do with it? Speeches have been made from this Front Bench to try to elucidate the matter and we have now reached the point, if I may so put it—aptly, I think, on this occasion—in a groundnut shell, that there is a difference of opinion between lay Ministers on the Front Bench and hon. and learned Gentlemen on this side as to what is the effect of these words in the Clause.
We do not want to prolong the discussion on this Amendment, because we want to get on to the next Amendment, and I therefore suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he should, between now and the final stages of the Bill, take this matter into consideration to see if these words do compel him to have an investigation, and, if he does not want an investigation, to make an Amendment to the Clause to make it clear that he does not want to have an investigation; or if he is so enamoured of these words because they are lifted from the Act of 1948 and have, therefore, a certain hoary look about them, then let him see that any investigation, whenever it takes place, whether immediately after the passage of the Bill or a year after—and any such investigations in the future—shall be carried out by impartial persons on the lines we have suggested in our Amendment. If he will do that, then, perhaps, we can pass to the next Amendment. [HON. MEMBERS: "Will he?"] I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was about to say something.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
I listened to what hon. and learned Members opposite said, and my legal advisers have given me their view. I will look at the point again, but on the general question I must ask the House to reject the Amendment.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Mr. Lennox-Boyd
I beg to move, in page 2, line 38, at the end, to insert:(5) The Secretary of State shall make regulations for ascertaining, verifying and recording particulars (whether relating to subject matter. value, ownership or other matters) of the assets, property, rights and liabilities of the Overseas Food Corporation as on the first day of April, nineteen hundred and fifty-one.This Amendment seeks to make it mandatory on the Secretary of State to make regulations for ascertaining, verifying and recording particulars of the assets. 480 property, rights and liabilities of the Overseas Food Corporation on the date when the Secretary of State becomes responsible for this enterprise. We had quite a lengthy discussion on an earlier occasion on the need to have an objective appreciation of the exact position in which the Corporation finds itself, and we made it quite plain to the right hon. Gentleman opposite that it did appear to us to be enormously to the advantage of the Corporation that it should know exactly where it stood in regard to all its assets, obligations and liabilities. If the right hon. Gentleman is sincere, as I do not doubt he is, in his hope that this new venture will succeed—and if this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament we join with him in wishing success to the enter prise—he will recognise that it is very much to the advantage of the Overseas Food Corporation to know exactly where it stands.
We have heard a good deal from uninformed quarters about the large volume of assets in East Africa, and many speeches have been made on that subject. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd), for example, on Second Reading said:The £36,500,000"—we are now engaged in writing off—represents, in great part, solid assets which are now established in East Africa."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February, 1951; Vol. 484. c. 1158.]We do not believe that that is so, but we are prepared to give the Government and the Corporation the benefit of the doubt. If there are these solid assets then we should be interested to know what and where they are, and we think it reasonable to require the Secretary of State to make regulations for ascertaining, verifying and recording particulars of those assets, and, incidentally, also of all the various liabilities.
There is one aspect of this problem of ascertaining the assets to which I should like in particular to direct the attention of the right hon. Gentleman. Everybody knows that there are large quantities of very valuable stores in East Africa. Many stores deteriorate very fast in East Africa, and we want to have a clear appreciation of the volume of these stores and of their value to British taxpayers. We are anxious to know how much can be rescued, and how much of the £36,500,000 we are 481 writing off today can be recovered to the benefit of British taxpayers, and I should be grateful if, in the discussion tonight, the right hon. Gentleman could cause inquiry to be made in regard to two particular aspects of the stores position in East Africa.
We have been at some considerable pains to obtain accurate information of the situation in regard to these two groups of commodities some time last year, but we have not more recent information, and if the right hon. Gentleman could tell us it would help us, I think, in our proper discussion of this Clause. So far as we can make out, any regulation made by the right hon. Gentleman for ascertaining the assets in East Africa would disclose the fact that at Urambo alone, when the last census was taken, there was no less than seven years' supply of gear oil stored, and at Kongwa for two and a half years' supplies of gear oil alone. I should be interested to know whether that is so, and if the right hon. Gentleman could tell us whether he will bring that figure further up to date.
Then there is another aspect of the situation to which I think the attention of the House should be directed. Any regulations made under this Amendment will disclose, in East Africa, the most fantastic situation in regard to the vast purchases of liquor by the Corporation. We have had inquiries made, and we are anxious to know what the situation is today. How much is now held? How much has been disposed of? What is the likely value to the public? Last year alone no fewer than 3,783 bottles of sherry were offered for sale in East Africa; 1,489 bottles of liqueurs; 7,686 bottles of brandy; 4,759 bottles of gin; 4,140 bottles or rum: 40,000 bottles of Tennant's beer; and 64,508 bottles of "Revolver" ale—brewed to keep only three months and which, when offered for sale, had already been in store for 12 months. Any regulations made to inquire into the assets of the Corporation would, I think, be of very great interest to British taxpayers who have to pay for monstrous purchases of that kind.
When one remembers that there are traders in all these commodities who could have supplied the Corporation's needs out of stock, the scandal becomes even graver. Having given the House the benefit of the long list of commodities 482 available—the alcoholic liquor available—one is a little surprised to remember, in view of the advertisements for this commodity, that they were satisfied with only 1,259 bottles of Rose's lime juice! As I said, the existing traders in East Africa could have supplied everything, and when they approached the Corporation they were told the Corporation proposed to buy in bulk and thereby effect a great saving to the taxpayers.
Last year alone that vast quantity of liquor was put on the market. We have no information as to how it was sold, or what price was reached, but in view of the large quantity of stores already there, and of the very large cost, and in view of the very limited public allowed to buy this liquor in East Africa, it does seem that these bottles must have been sold at a very heavy discount. That being so, an inquiry made by regulation under this Amendment would, I think, disclose some astonishing facts to the British taxpayer. I hope that this discussion tonight will last long enough to enable the right hon. Gentleman to check up on the present situation.
I mentioned liabilities apart from assets, and we are anxious to know some definite details about the liabilities of the Corporation. The House will remember that on.the Committee stage we had a great deal of contrary advice tendered by various right hon. Gentlemen opposite. We did not know whether the loss that we were told about was the loss on the sale of stores or the cost of the sale of stores, and either the Secretary of State or the Minister of Food undertook to make a statement today on this question. We are anxiously awaiting further information about the anticipated loss on the sale of stores or the cost of the sale of stores, because it matters very much to the House in arriving at a sensible conclusion.
There is one aspect of the liabilities of the Corporation to which I would like once more to direct the attention of the House. One of the liabilities of the Corporation will, no doubt, be to pay proper compensation to officers who are displaced. We heard two days ago of the very small compensation which is being paid to a large number of people who are losing their jobs, and then just as the Committee was rising we heard a 483 rather astonishing story of a very substantial payment that is being made to a retiring member of the Corporation—Mr. McFadyen.
I have no complaint to make of Mr. McFadyen. He no doubt made a very worth while contract from his own point of view, and it is undeniable that he has given good service to the Corporation during his years of office, but it appears to us to be extraordinary that, having drawn an annual salary of £4,000 a year, which he continued to receive when he ceased to be vice-chairman, he now is to receive compensation of £4,000 down and £600 a year pension for life. The pension for life, I understand, is roughly what he would have received in seven years time from the Co-operative Wholesale Society. What appears to be happening is that the British taxpayer is now taking over what should be the obligation of the Co-operative Wholesale Society. I hope that whoever is to reply can give us more information about that issue.
§ Mr. Gammans
I beg to second the Amendment.
I do not think I need add to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd). We feel that there should be a complete financial break between the old and the new—that we should regard the past as representing a bankrupt concern and that there should follow the ordinary procedure which occurs when a man or a company goes bankrupt. One thing is quite certain. Where any firm goes bankrupt the old firm is certainly not allowed to carry out its own valuation of the remaining assets; certainly, when the directorate remains very largely the same, the directorate of the new concern should not be allowed to take over those assets again at their own valuation. I cannot see why any public corporation should claim to exempt itself from the normal procedure of bankruptcy, and I do not think that hon. Members opposite should try to apply any different method in the case of this Groundnut Scheme.
I hope that we shall receive support from all quarters of the House. All we want to do is to satisfy ourselves that there are no hidden assets and no unreasonable liabilities. The House and the country are entitled to a full and frank 484 statement of the present value of the assets remaining. They certainly are entitled to know what are the liabilities of the new Corporation, certainly with regard to pensions. There is no doubt that the senior members of the Corporation are receiving up to 19 months' salary as gratuity, whereas humble people here in London are getting only four or five weeks' salary. That has caused a very bad impression throughout the country, and I hope it has created a bad impression on the other side of the House.
We must insist that this business shall be properly dealt with and that the assets shall be properly valued. We have got to clear up the misunderstandings, which have arisen from the statement which was made the other night, about the way in which these assets are to be valued. We had an extraordinary statement from the Minister of State for Colonial Affairs the ether night. He seems to have mixed up the functions of an auditor and a valuer. The auditor does not value the assets. He either accepts the valuation put upon them by the concern or else he demands an independent valuation. As the receivers in bankruptcy, as the custodians of public funds and as the body who are asked, incidentally, to vote another £6 million, we should at least insist upon the Government being as businesslike as they and their supporters would certainly demand of a private concern.
§ The Minister of State for Colonial Affairs (Mr. John Dugdale)
Perhaps it might be convenient if I intervened at this stage. Let me first deal with one or two of the points raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd). I cannot answer offhand his question dealing with the 2½years' supply of gear oil at Kongwa or the seven years' supply at Urambo, but I will certainly see that the necessary information is available. A large part of the hon. Member's speech, which I thought was going to deal with fixed assets, appeared to be entirely confined to liquid assets. It sounded almost like an inventory of the Carlton Club. It was a very curious list, and all I hope is that a very large amount of that liquor will have found its way, at the right and suitable price, into the hands of people who fully appreciate it.
§ Mr. Lennox-Boyd
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that it is altogether 485 adequate to dismiss in that frivolous way the purchase of stores on such a vast and fantastic scale at a time when we are counting every penny for our national survival, and to regard the whole matter as one that can be turned off as a rather flippant joke?
§ Mr. Dugdale
No. I am only interested in the fact that this liquor appears to have been the thing which has most exercised the mind of the hon. Member.
§ Mr. Dugdale
It is not scandalous unless it is proved that that liquor has been sold at a vastly reduced price, and there is no information that it has been. If it has been sold at a reasonable price no loss will have been incurred.
I should like to turn to the main question of valuation. Three points arise here. The first is the ascertainment of the physical existence and location of the buildings, installations, plant, machinery, vehicles and furniture; the second is the maintenance of detailed records of these assets; and the third is the question of the valuation itself. The existence of the assets, which appear in the Corporation's accounts for 31st March, 1950, were substantiated by detailed physical censuses carried out for that purpose by the Corporation. A further complete census of plant, machinery and vehicles, and a test census of buildings and installations are now being carried out in East Africa as a further check of the Corporation's detailed records from which figures will appear in the accounts for 31st March, 1951.
As to the records, it can fairly be claimed that the detailed records of buildings, installations and plant now maintained in East Africa conform to the best commercial practice, and the Corporation is at present completing an inventory of furniture and office equipment which form a small proportion of those fixed assets.
The auditors have taken the view that it is one of their functions to satisfy themselves, by whatever test they consider necessary, that proper detailed records of fixed assets are, in fact, kept, that there is a satisfactory system in force for recording the existence and location of those assets and that such a system is functioning properly. As regards ascer- 486 tainment and recording, I am satisfied—and, what I think is of greater importance, the auditors are satisfied—that nothing further is required.
There remains the question of the fixed assets. Here, I think we are in general agreement with the Opposition that we want to be absolutely certain that we have the correct valuation of these assets which we are taking over. The position is that the buildings, installations, plant, machinery, and vehicles appear on the Corporation's accounts at cost or, where it has not been possible to ascertain the cost, at the estimated cost less accumulated depreciation. Some of these assets will be required by the Corporation to carry on the scheme in its new form, while others will become surplus to requirements. The Corporation are at present engaged in determining into which of these two categories the assets will fall.
§ Mr. Gammans
If, as the right hon. Gentleman is now suggesting, these fixed assets and movable assets are worth a considerable sum of money, why is it that the Government have written off the whole cost of £36½ million? Ought they not to have had a proper valuation before they came to this House and asked us to wipe off every penny piece that they have spent up to now?
§ Mr. Dugdale
It has always been made clear that any moneys which are found as a result of the valuation will be taken into account, and will, in fact, be paid back into the Exchequer. Therefore, they will obviously be set against the losses amounting at present to £36 million. That is why I think it is important to make this clear. I am very glad that the hon. Member raised it, because the loss of £36 million is not a net loss, but £36 million less these assets which is a very important point to bring home. We shall discover later on how much, in fact. the loss is when we are able to subtract the various assets that are left from £36 million.
As I have said, the Corporation are engaged in determining into which of these categories the various fixed assets will fall and it is clear that when that determination is complete, which should be the last quarter of this year, no other basis of valuation will be possible. Even then it is difficult to see how it will be possible to value in any other way the other surplus assets until their realisable value has been decided by disposal, or the 487 retained assets until the economic possibilities of the undertaking has been decided by experimentation carried out under the new plan for the scheme.
I am very doubtful whether any verification or valuation is, in fact, a practical possibility, but we intend to test these doubts on this point by seeking the views of a reputable firm of valuers. I am prepared to undertake that if it can be found that an independent valuation is practicable, once the surplus assets have been segregated from those to be retained, then we will arrange for such an independent valuation to be carried out. I think that this, in general, meets the point raised by hon. Members opposite. I hope that the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Gammans) will feel that this satisfies him, and that his hon. Friend will be able to withdraw this Amendment on the understanding that we shall consult such a firm of valuers and we shall then see what the position is in the light of the advice which we shall get from such a firm as I have mentioned.
§ Sir Peter Macdonald (Isle of Wight)
Despite the assurance given by the Minister of State, I do not feel at all happy about the situation, because if there is to be a valuation of this Corporation, which is now in liquidation, it should be done by an entirely independent body. We should like to know who this independent body is to be, because the assets will vary a great deal in character. Unless the valuers are prepared to employ experts in the various branches of valuation, I should feel very unhappy about it, certainly if the valuation were undertaken by valuers who did not understand agricultural machinery.
§ Mr. Dugdale
It would be the desire of the Government, as it obviously is of the Opposition, that we should secure the best and most competent firm of valuers. We do not intend to employ just any valuers we can pick up anywhere, but the best valuers we can secure, because it is in our interests as well as in the interests of the nation that the valuers should be of the best.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Sir P. Macdonald
I hope that the valuers will draw on the experience and expert knowledge of people outside their 488 own firm. I have seen a great deal of vehicle disposal by the Government and a great deal of public money lost through improper handling of the valuation and the sale. For instance, I went to Germany as a member of a Select Committee of the House to report on the activities of the Control Commission. There, we found thousands of vehicles for disposal, but they had been allowed to lie and rot in the sun and in the weather for years without being disposed of. Some of them, we were told, were not disposed of because they lacked spare parts, and nobody wanted to buy a vehicle which was not complete.
I learned about this Corporation that 90 per cent. of its vehicles and equipment were out of order at one time owing to the spare parts not being available. They were sent to one port whilst the vehicles and equipment went to another. Today, probably a great deal of the equipment which would have to be disposed of, as the new Corporation would not require it for the smaller scheme, is lying in the open air, exposed to the African sun, while awaiting disposal. I do not want to see things happen there which, I am told, have already happened in some cases—equipment being sold to squatters and Indians without sufficient notice being given to other people in Africa that a sale was taking place. I am told of these things being sold at knock-down prices to Indians, who, overnight, added a few spare parts and re-sold them at an enormous profit. That is another thing that must be watched very carefully.
There is room for disposal of this equipment in Africa. Other Colonies may want it. I am told that the Tanganyika Government would probably require a good deal of it, and I hope they will find a use for it. Other Governments in Africa should have an opportunity of purchasing this equipment. What I am afraid of is the selling of this equipment in job lots to people without proper notice being given to the public generally. In that way the taxpayers lose more money, and we have already lost a pile on this scheme.
There is the question of unserviceable vehicles. These vehicles should not be sold at knock-down prices. It should be possible to make them serviceable by using spares taken from other broken down vehicles so as to build them up into 489 serviceable ones. That was done eventually in Germany, and hundreds of thousands of pounds were saved to the British taxpayer. I am afraid, however, that many of these vehicles will be sold off as unserviceable and unusable at any price which they will bring, when, possibly, a little attention to them could make them serviceable. Some of this equipment was bought at a very high price, indeed far too high a price at the time. It was transported from the Pacific Ocean at tremendous freight charges and it was allowed to lie on piers and wharfs in Africa for months at a time. Some of the cost was for demurrage because the ships could not get into port.
All that is known is that this is some of the most expensive equipment which was ever purchased by any Government. Therefore, it is vital to try to dispose of it to the best possible advantage. The assurance from the Minister of State that he is to employ the best possible valuers is one which we accept. Later we would like to know who the valuers are and if they are to bring in the best possible advice and experience from outside to see that this enormous amount of equipment is disposed of to the best means. With that assurance from the Minister, I am prepared to accept his statement.
§ Mr. Frederic Harris
There is one point which the Minister of State made with regard to the sale of liquor and which I should like to get clear. He said that surely there could be no complaint if such supplies of liquor were sold at a profit. Two points arise out of that. First, when and how are we to know that this liquor is sold at a profit or a loss unless we can get absolute details? Secondly, that does not excuse those running the Scheme for all the enormous buying of liquor that there was. The Government and the Overseas Food Corporation are not buyers of liquor, and therefore, there is no justification for that from a trading point of view.
The point put forward by hon. Members on this side is that we are completely dissatisfied with this Scheme from the accountancy point of view. I welcome the assurance which the Minister has given with regard to the employment of a valuer in respect of the fixed assets, but I would remind him that in his speech he has dealt only with the question of the fixed assets. He has missed all the 490 other points and brought in only the fixed assets. The Amendment refers to assets, property, rights and liabilities, and although the fixed assets are very important so far as they remain, we on this side are deeply worried about all the possessions belonging to the Overseas Food Corporation and what is to happen to them, particularly if there is not a proper system of accountancy and a proper record right from the start of the new Scheme on 1st April.
The Minister put the valuation of the fixed assets into two categories, the fixed assets which are to be used under the new Scheme and those that are not, and which will be disposed of. He went on to say that the recording of the sales of the fixed assets would not come into these accounts, but would apparently be paid into the Exchequer as a kind of extra payment. Surely that is a peculiar way to go on, because there is the intention to sell surplus stores and equipment, to receive payment for it and to put it into the accounts of the new Scheme. Why should the disposal of fixed assets be paid separately into the Exchequer?
I find great difficulty in understanding this, in view of the fact that the new Scheme starts on 1st April. Surely the correct way is to take the sale of the assets, whether fixed or otherwise, record it correctly on the balance sheet of the new Scheme, and then let the Corporation under its new Scheme go ahead with their disposal, supported in the case of the fixed asets by a valuation by an independent body, which will be an assurance to everyone that this is in order, and, as the capital is realised, to show it distinctly on subsequent accounts as a write-down of the commencing capital.
We then come to the question of stocks, to which the Minister of State hardly referred, and about which my colleagues and I feel very strongly. He will remember the statement made the other night that on the liquidation of such stores, if the Scheme were closed, there would be a loss of some £600,000. Under the accounts which are proposed, and which by this Amendment we want to see accurately set out, the suggestion is that we should get in due course some £2¼ million on the sale of surplus stores and equipment. Does that mean that we are going to commence with some £4 million worth of 491 stores and equipment from 1st April which in actual fact will be redundant to the Scheme and which, on realisation, will cost £1,600,000, and that the remaining £2¼ million will then go into the Scheme? That is, I presume, the way in which these figures have been set down. That is why we are deeply concerned and want an accurate start on 1st April, because many of us believe there is very much more than he £4 million worth of stores which are to be realised. Over and above that, we do not believe that, particularly in a time of rising prices, there can be a loss of £1,600,000 on the sale and realisation of such commencing stores, whether they be £4 million or not.
Therefore, the importance behind the proposal in the Amendment is this. We want to start with accurate information on 1st April. We have the Minister's statement that, so far as the fixed assets are concerned, an independent valuer will be employed and that we shall start afresh. That is all right, but I do not know how it is to be done in the time. Furthermore, there is one section that is not to go into the Scheme, and some of the money is not to go into the balance-sheet whatever happens but is to be paid separately into the Exchequer. That means that this House cannot possibly know what will be going on subsequent to 1st April, even as to the realisation of the fixed assets.
When it comes to the question of stores, unless this proposal is amended—and the Minister of State said nothing about the valuation of stocks and stores at all, but talked only about the fixed assets—I, and I think many of my hon. Friends, would not be prepared to accept a general stock figure which might be put in. In fact, the Minister of State himself sounded as if he were not quite sure whether there was a proper accountancy system to record the stocks and stores over there at the present time.
Furthermore, there may be a considerable degree of doubt about what we are starting with, in regard to stores. Obviously, if we write off £36½ million there must be a considerable amount of stores and equipment which must still be there. It may well be that they are of a much larger monetary value than £4 million, but, even so, I cannot accept the thought that even if that were the right figure, we should lose £1,600,000 in the 492 disposal of them. We need accurate information in the accounts to start on-1st April, otherwise the subsequent information that will be put before the House will not be a true reflection of the handling of the Scheme from 1st April. It will involve considerable loss on the disposal of stocks which would never have been employed on the Scheme. The profits that should be obtained on the disposal of the stores and stocks should commence accurately in this new balance sheet from 1st April. This is a vital point. I believe that the Ministers concerned are not keen to continue pursuing this matter but I cannot understand why, because it is important to know where we start.
There is no party issue involved. The whole point is that we do not want to be faced in a year and a half with some possible misunderstanding of what has occurred since 1st April this year. It is vital that we should have a proper reflection of the trading from 1st April, but without the accurate information envisaged in the Amendment we cannot possibly learn what has taken place in the trading since 1st April. If these figures are to mean anything, they should be enlarged upon by ensuring that we get independent valuers not only for the fixed assets, to which the Minister referred, but also for the stocks and equipment. The whole of the assets should be valued and we should commence at 1st April with detailed advice on that valuation so that we can see what occurs on the realisation of the assets.
I know that many hon. Members opposite do not like this Scheme being delved into, but I, for one, will not accept everything that is put across to me. The Minister of State said just now that we were only talking about liquor. He has been to East Africa, and anybody of intelligence could see for himself what is out there and what has got to be disposed of. Hon. Members opposite should join with us in recognising the need for accurate information. Why should not we have it? Just because this is a public scheme, why should the Government play about like this? I strongly support the purpose of this Amendment, that from 1st April we should start with accurate information of all the stocks so that we know what is happening. That would be 493 a safeguard against any possible abuse in East Africa in disposing of the assets, stocks and stores.
I ask the Ministers concerned to realise the importance of starting with this type of information. They have gone part of the way by saying there will be a valuation of the fixed assets. Let them go the whole way so that we have an independent viewpoint of the value of the stocks and stores when we start on 1st April.
§ Mr. Webb
In Committee I undertook to try to give some additional explanation of certain figures, and after the speech of the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Frederic Harris) perhaps it would be relevant for me to intervene now to try to elucidate those figures. Many of the figures have appeared in printed form and some have been used in the wrong context. For instance, the £2¼million which has been cited was a figure in an Appendix of the White Paper on which the Corporation based its recommendations to the Government, but the Scheme we have now adopted, and which the House has endorsed, is not the Corporation Scheme. That is just one example of a figure taken out of its context and used rather falsely and misleadingly.
I hope I shall be in order in trying to give, as briefly as I can, some explanation of the rather complicated figures we have been looking at. Confusion has arisen, I think, not so much from any lack of information as from the fact that the comparisons are complicated, and I sympathise with hon. Members. It is difficult enough to do this sort of exercise when sitting at a desk, and it is certainly a most confusing business to have to do it in the House. Since our last discussion I have had some estimates from the Corporation; I have gone into them very fully with the Chairman and other officers, and as a result I hope that I shall be able to amplify the matter a little, and at least give some up-to-date facts.
Let me first make one point quite clear. Confusion has arisen, I think, from this. We are not writing off assets. What we are writing off is the Corporation's debt to the Exchequer in respect of advances made out of the Consolidated Fund. The value of the Corporation's assets—to which I will come later—is really unaffected by this write-off. What the 494 Corporation possesses does not somehow disappear because the debt is to be written off. We are not closing down the Corporation; we are reducing its scale of operations. Much of the discussion has taken place on the assumption that we were in liquidation, and on that assumption a good many of the points made would have been relevant and real. In fact, we are not going into liquidation. The Corporation continues. What we are doing is reducing its scale of operations, re-shaping it and bringing the whole thing down much nearer to a basis of financial and economic reality. The Corporation continues, and we must have that in mind.
The hon. Member for Croydon, North has much wider business experience than I have, but I believe it is fairly normal commercial practice, when a big organisation is restricting its activities although not going into liquidation, to do something of this kind, to make certain assumptions about the value of its assets and write them down to a certain book value and yet not proceed on the basis upon which they would proceed if the concern were going into liquidation.
§ Mr. Harris
When anybody writes down £36½ million representing advances from the Exchequer, he has to write down the equivalent on the other side of the balance sheet as well. If the whole amount advanced is £36½ million, involving the total expenditure to date, it virtually means that the whole assets as such are being written off, unless something is brought back instead, and if so, we should not have written off that amount of the loan.
§ Mr. Webb
I see that, and it is quite a proper comment. I am trying to give the Corporation's assessment of that requirement, and I hope it will emerge in the course of my remarks.
We begin with the situation in which the Corporation have certain assets in East Africa. In their balance sheet for the year ended 31st March, 1950, they gave the value of their assets at that date. No later audited figure—and the difficulty is that there is no audited figure; I do not want to mislead the House; we have to wait for the audited figure—will be available until the 1951 accounts are completed, but to help the House I can give the Corporation's estimates. The book value of the main estimates at the 495 end of March, 1951, this month, are estimated—and please bear in mind this is the estimate without the auditors' approval—to be roughly as follows: buildings and installations, £3 million; plant, machinery, vehicles and stores, £7½million. In addition there is this asset: the expenditure recoverable from the East African railways, assuming we go on—and I think the House realises that we have to go on to recover that asset—£3 million.
§ Mr. Lennox-Boyd
The money advanced to the East African railways and harbours did not form part of the £36½ million, so if the impression is being given that that is a further sum to offset against the £36½ million, that would not be correct.
§ Mr. Webb
I did not mean to give that impression. I merely wanted to get it on the record. It is not part of the £36½ million, but it is part of the picture. As they did in the 1949–50 accounts, the Corporation will state in the notes on their accounts the basis upon which their assets appear in the accounts, so there will be no secrecy and uncertainty upon this point. Although we have to work in advance of the appearance of these accounts, I can say that the basis is the cost or, where that is not available, the estimated cost of the assets less depreciation, which I think is a normal and fair test. Hon. Members will realise that this is the book value. On the whole, it is the only figure on which we can work pending the arrival of the accounts.
I come to the value of the cleared land, which is an entirely separate estimate. It is not shown separately in the balance sheet for the reasons which were stated in paragraph 397 of the Report to which I have referred. That was because the cost of clearing the land could not be separated from the cost of the general development. Our trouble is that cleared land is rather an imponderable asset. If we do not go on with the Scheme, the bush will come back and that will be the end of the asset. If we go on and succeed, that land will appreciate in value. At the moment it does not exist as an asset at all, and we must not consider it as such, but we must take it into account in our appreciation.
496 Under the new Scheme of the White Paper, the assets which are mainly plant, machinery and stores, have a book value of up to £3 million surplus to the Corporation's future requirements. It is virtually impossible to give a satisfactory estimate of the sum which will be realised by the sale of those surplus assets. As hon. Members have pointed out, world prices are rising, but much of this equipment is unfortunately of a specialised character for which there is only a limited market. I wish it were not so. The Corporation will have to meet heavy charges in respect of maintenance and transport. Whatever net sums are recoverable after the operations will be paid into the Exchequer and can be, and will be, set against the advances from the Consolidated Fund which are being written off. That is the picture at that stage. Now I come to the cost of the new plant. which gives some difficulty.
§ Mr. F. Harris
I thank the Minister very much for trying to make the position clear. What puzzles me is this figure of £10½ million for assets not appearing on the accounts. We shall know later whether it is £10½ million or more. I do not understand why the Government wrote off £36½ million. Why did they not write off everything except the £10½ million, which would have meant a net write off of £26½ million?
§ Mr. Webb
We felt that this was the honest thing to do. The Government wrote off £36½ million because the Corporation in its last Report made it clear that it could no longer carry out its statutory obligations. It seemed the proper thing to do to write off the whole amount and to assume that whatever came along would be to our advantage. It might have made the picture look better if we had done what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting.
The estimate of £6 million in the White Paper is the net sum which the Corporation expect to draw from the Treasury over a period of about seven years, up to September, 1957. This net sum represents a gross figure of £13½ million, less the estimated income of about £7½ million from crops over that period. The gross estimate of £13½ million is made up of about £2¼ million capital expenditure, after allowing for the use of stores and equipment, about £8½ million expended on 497 agriculture, and about £2¾ million expended upon past commitments, such as the guarantee to the Southern Province Railway, compensation for loss of office to staff who will not be needed, and general run-down and maintenance expenses on the surplus fixed assets. That is a rough estimate of the break-down of the figures on which the new plan is based. It is £13½ million, less possible sales of £7½million, leaving us roughly with £6 million, which appears in the White Paper.
Of the net sum of £6 million, there are £2¾million in respect of past commitments. The remaining £3¼million is for expenditure in the future. That is the real figure on which we should focus our minds. The figure of £6 million is only an estimate, but I do not want to overlook the fact that we are not entering into the Scheme on the assumption that £6 million is an accurate figure. I admit that there might be a wide margin of error in it. The House's protection is that each annual instalment will have to be presented to the House. It will go on to the Vote of the Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, in the ordinary way. I hope that explanation is all right.
Now let me turn to the academic problem of closing the Scheme down at once. We must consider the assets. Instead of getting rid of the surplus assets with a book value of £3 million, the Corporation assumes that the book value of the disposal of machinery, stores and so on would, in the case of complete closure, be about £7½million. Again, it is impossible to state what sums might be realised by the sale of those assets. It must be remembered that buildings and installations will have very little value for disposal, although they would be surplus. Whatever sums were recoverable would be paid into the Exchequer and would be set against advances from the Consolidated Fund which we have written off. They would yield more than in the case of disposal under the modified plan. It must be realised that in the case of the modified plan the Corporation retains assets which would be of potential enhancing value.
The Corporation would have to find a little more than £1 million as compensation to various interests, for breach of contract in respect of transportation in 498 the Southern Province, and other major contracts with suppliers would add another £300,000. Under the general heading of personnel, there would be the cost of the termination of contracts, salaries to people while awaiting passage to the United Kingdom, and the cost of passages to the United Kingdom. Those work out at £1,650,000. Then there would be miscellaneous commitments in regard to dispersal of African labour and the breaking of other contracts, which would cost half a million pounds. In the statement made recently by the Parliamentary Secretary, he gave a figure of £1½million which included this figure of half a million pounds in the cost of maintenance and dispersal of the surplus assets. Excluding this, the cost of concentration, maintenance and disposal of surplus assets is estimated at £1 million and not the gross figure of £1½ million.
Hon. Members opposite may challenge this estimate of the cost of disposal. I agree that the figure is very high indeed. I have discussed this matter in great detail with the responsible officers of the Corporation, and I am satisfied that their judgment is sound. It is based on the assumption that the surplus assets were collected and moved at heavy cost and have to be sold on a business basis. That is the figure they are putting on to the calculation, and I am pretty sure that it will turn out to be more than adequate. They thought it better to put it at a high figure rather than to run the risk of being inaccurate. The cost of closing down is £4½ million. In addition, the Corporation and the Exchequer would not be able to recover from the East African Railways the £3 million loaned to the Southern Province Railway.
§ Mr. Webb
Because we have failed to complete the contract and we are obliged to lose on it. We did not carry out our obligations under the contract. The figure I have given is £4½ million, plus £3 million, making the cost of closing down £7½million. That is how we arrived at the two figures which have caused so much discussion in previous debates.
§ Mr. Selwyn Lloyd
I apologise if the right hon. Gentleman has already stated this, but what was the Corporation's estimate of the yield of the assets which will cost £1 million to dispose of?
§ Mr. Webb
I think that is covered by one of the general figures which I have given, but I am not quite clear about it and cannot say offhand. We have all got confused about this in previous debates and have been bringing out figures which have no relevance. I am trying to get the picture clear. It really is clear if we can get it sorted out. I do not want to give a snap judgment about a figure which may be irrelevant to what I am trying to set out.
§ Mr. Selwyn Lloyd
The right hon. Gentleman has talked about the cost of closing down the Scheme. He has given the gross figure for all the items. We cannot appreciate the problem until we know the net figure; that is, what he will get for the assets of which he will dispose.
§ Mr. Selwyn Lloyd
The right hon. Gentleman gave the figure of £3 million in relation to the new Scheme.
§ Mr. Webb
I want to give one other fact in order to give all the information to the House. I apologise for the length of my statement. This other matter relates to Mr. McFadyen. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies is concerned with Mr. McFadyen's future, but what I have to say relates to an obligation of the past. There is some misunderstanding about his pension. Mr. McFadyen's pension is based on payments he himself has made. When he joined the Corporation he had 500 certain pension rights with the organisation for which he then worked—I believe it was the C.W.S.—and at that time he did not want to lose those pension rights, and we agreed with the Chancellor to transfer them to the Corporation. Since then he himself has continued all the contributory payments which had to be made, and only a very small part of the pension now due to him is based on payments made out of public money. Therefore, for the larger part, the actuarial value of the pension is the result of payments made by him in his own sphere of life over many years long before he entered the Corporation. The actual figure of compensation, £4,000, is not more than that normally paid at the end of contracts of this kind. In some cases it might be less, but it is certainly not more—
I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but he seems to be going into a great deal of detail. As I understand it, the right hon. Gentleman is carrying out some undertaking that he has given, but the Amendment has to do with the making of regulations giving various particulars of assets, property rights and liabilities of the Corporation, and I do not want the debate to develop into one as to the correctness or otherwise of the figures given by the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman is, I gather, as a matter of courtesy carrying out an undertaking he has given to the House, but the question before us is one of mechanics and not of details of figures.
§ Mr. Webb
I thought that was the desire of everybody. The matter was raised and questions were put, and, since questions were put, I felt it would be wrong not to give some more information. If I have gone too wide, I can only apologise, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Might I strain your indulgence for a moment to make clear one more fact—the amount of time that Mr. McFadyen still had to run? His contract was for six years, and he had done just over three years. He had about two years and nine months to go. That is all the information I can give on the point, and I hope that I have been able to help the House arrive at a clearer judgment.
§ Sir Ralph Glyn (Abingdon)
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned £1,500,000 as 501 compensation and also mentioned passages home for people who are being retired from the Scheme. Did he mention the number of people concerned?
§ Sir R. Glyn
If the right hon. Gentleman mentioned £1,500,000 as compensation, that must be based on the number of people affected.
§ Mr. Webb
In arriving at the estimates, the officers of the Corporation have, of course, to make certain assumptions and calculations. They have certain global figures in their minds. But I could not say whether or not the number of people who will be redundant will approximate to the figure which they have in mind. This is a round figure which they have given to us as the one on which we can proceed to work.
§ Mr. Selwyn Lloyd
I am afraid that I am completely dissatisfied with the right hon. Gentleman's answer. Everything he has said—I appreciate his courtesy in trying to give full particulars—has confirmed my view that the Amendment is one which the House should accept. It is clear from what the right hon. Gentleman has told us that it is very necessary in the public interest that the most precise methods of evaluating the assets and liabilities should be used. I will deal first with the figures which the right hon. Gentleman gave for the new Scheme. If I understood him correctly, the figure for the assets is £10,500,000, £3 million worth of which he will dispose of. Am I right so far?
§ Mr. Webb indicated assent.
§ Mr. Lloyd
That leaves £7,500,000 worth of assets with which the new corporation will start. It will thus have the benefit of the £7,500,000 worth of assets. One ought to know how much those assets are worth. How much are they worth to the new Corporation? Are they worth £7,500,000 to the new Corporation or are they worth less? If they are worth £2 million to the new Corpora- 502 tion the figure of the amount to be written off should not be £36 million.
In dealing with the figure of loss to be written off, it is wrong to disregard the net value of the remaining assets to the new Corporation. If it is not clearly understood on what basis the new Corporation is starting, we shall never be able to decide whether it is a worthwhile proposition or not. It seems to me to be very necessary for the Minister to make regulations to determine the value of the £7,500,000 worth of assets which now appear to be given to the new Corporation as a present. The new Corporation will apparently start with all the advances written off and with £7,500,000 worth of assets in hand. That is a very agreeable state of affairs, but we ought to know the exact figures. Then the Minister says that he will dispose of £3 million worth of assets. I believe that the estimate of what he would get for that is very much lower, but, in order to avoid accusations of a public scandal of one sort or another. it seems that much more precise methods should be used to determine the value of the assets and to see whether the realisation is properly achieved.
I should like once more to try to get from the Minister the figure about which I interrupted him. He has told us the cost of winding up the Scheme, the four items amounting to £4,500,000, plus £3 million in respect of railways. He has not brought into account at all any yield from the £10,500,000 worth of assets, which is the value that the Corporation puts on its present assets. The right hon. Gentleman says that that figure is based partly on buildings, partly on plant and partly on stores, but in determining the cost of closing down the Scheme we cannot arrive at any judgment if we are not told the estimated yield of the £10,500,000 worth of assets. The right hon. Gentleman said that he could not close down the Scheme completely because it would cost £4,500,000, but the Government have throughout failed to give us the other part of the calculations which alone will enable us to determine the validity of their arguments. I urge the Minister to interrupt me if he wishes to do so, and tell us the estimated yield from the £10,500,000 worth of assets had they all been disposed of or had the decision been taken to dispose of them all.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Webb
I can answer that straight away. A large part of those assets consist of buildings and installations which, in the event of closing down, would cease immediately to have any value. The Scheme would collapse, the bush would go back, there would be no civilisation there, and therefore those assets would disappear. The hon. and learned Member spoke of a figure of £10½ million, of at least £3 million for buildings and installations, and the large figure of £7½ million which includes plants and machinery, which is stationary and probably in the same category. The point is that liquidation would create a situation in which the assets would have very little value at all, and it might conceivably mean that they would have to be written off as nil.
§ Mr. Selwyn Lloyd
I understand those generalisations, but somebody must have made an estimate because we have been told that the cost of disposal would be £1 million; and if someone has estimated the cost of disposal, he must also have estimated the yield. I agree that we would probably not sell for a large figure a building out there where nobody wants it, but someone, in making those global estimates, must have formulated a guess as to what £10½ million of assets would yield. It is that figure which we have repeatedly asked for and have never been given. I am certain it exists somewhere. If it does not, I say that it is misleading the House and the country to say that the cost of closing down the Scheme completely would be £4½million.
§ Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)
I am anxious to know from the Government whether the figures for the heavy expenditure on large stocks of liquor mean what they seem to mean. For example, to what numbers of people were the stocks related? I would have the Government realise that if those figures really represent what they seem to represent, there are people on these benches who would be extremely concerned; and they would be more concerned still to find nothing said about this.
It may be that it is not fair just now to press for any details, but if a thing like this takes place, it is as good an explanation as any I would expect, for 504 the failure and mess-up that has taken place in this matter. I hope that a leaf will be turned and that there will not again be anything like that expenditure upon drink in its worst form in the great public enterprises in which we on these benches are interested. I hope the Government can say either that I have it all wrong or that things like this will not happen again.
§ Mr. Hurd
We are all getting some shocks this evening. I want to induce the Minister to be a little more frank with us about the liabilities facing the Overseas Food Corporation. He has frankly and fully told us the position about Mr. McFadyen, who is retiring from membership of the Overseas Food Corporation. We recognise that he has rendered good and loyal service to the Corporation and that his experience in the other sphere of business has been useful. We also know that Sir Leslie Plummer was the Chairman before he received £8,000 compensation. What we should know this evening, too, if the new Corporation as from 1st April is to have a clean sheet, is what other contingent liabilities there are in respect of other members of the Corporation.
§ Mr. Speaker
Why should we know? The Amendment only says: "shall make regulations for ascertaining, verifying…" in other words, find out what these things are. Surely to say now that hon. Members should know, is repeating what the Amendment says—that we should find out.
§ Mr. Hurd
I want to ask what the position will be as regards Sir Eric Coates, the present Chairman of the Corporation, who has given excellent service in clearing up the present mess. I do not imagine he will want to continue when it is a small board with its headquarters in West Africa. Can the Minister tell us whether the Overseas Food Corporation from 1st April will have a liability for 505 a continuing contract or possible pension in respect of Sir Eric Coates and also as regards Sir Charles Lockhart?
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. William Whiteley) rose—
§ Captain Crookshank
I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman got up. I have my eye on the clock as much as he has. I was going to say that this is a difficult question. We debated it at great length on the Committee stage. I was called away, but I know from my hon. Friends that both Ministers have made statements which during the Committee stage they promised to make. We are grateful for those, and while the right hon. Gentleman has certainly not gone the length we want him to go in this Amendment, as I understand it what he is going to do is to make an inquiry through an independent firm to find out more about the assets.
§ Mr. Griffiths
May I repeat that we intend to test any doubt on this point by seeking the views of a reputable firm of valuers. I am prepared to undertake that if they take the view that an independent valuation is practicable, once surplus assets have been segregated from those to be retained, I will arrange for such an independent valuation to be carried out. I will also arrange for a report to be published.
§ Captain Crookshank
While that does not go all the way, it goes some way as far as we are concerned. We are always in the difficulty at this stage of a Bill, when the Minister brings forward a fresh suggestion of that kind, of trying to get consultations while the debate is going on. It is not always easy. Fortunately, under our procedure there is another stage, when this Bill has to go through another place. It may be that after consideration, either side of the House might want to modify or change that suggestion, but as far as it goes at the moment, it certainly seems to be a well-intentioned attempt on the part of the Government to try to meet some of the difficulties with which we are faced.
As for the statement of the Minister of Food, we are obliged to the right hon. 506 Gentleman for having been able to say as much as he did. If he was not able to answer all the questions because you, Sir, did not think they were strictly in order, perhaps he, too, will find some other means, probably in reply to a Question, to let us know exactly how we stand. That is the general position as I see it, and as we have to consider some more Amendments, perhaps my hon. Friends will be ready to allow the matter to go now.
§ Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd), who moved the Amendment, is not here, so strictly speaking nobody can withdraw it.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Captain Crookshank
I beg to move, in page 2, line 38, at the end, to insert:(5) The Overseas Food Corporation shall as soon as possible after the end of each quarter of each financial year of the Corporation make a full report to the Secretary of State on the exercise and performance by them of their functions during that quarter, and he shall lay a copy thereof before each House of Parliament.We put down this Amendment to enable the right hon. Gentleman to carry out the assurance he gave on the Committee stage of the Bill. During that stage, Ministers made a number of assurances that they would look into matters, and so on, but this morning we found to our surprise that no Government Amendments had been put down.
§ Captain Crookshank
There were no Government Amendments except one. All the other things about which we had been promised statements during the Report stage could not have been said had not my hon. Friends and I decided that we had better put down Amendments, hoping that they were in order, to give the Government that very opportunity, which they themselves did not take by putting down Amendments. Therefore, the House is very much indebted to us, because were it not for our Amendments the Government could have made no statements at all. Indeed, the statements made on the last Amendment could not have been given. I am surprised that 507 the Government should let the situation slip in that way.
During the Committee stage, on 28th February, one of the assurances was given to us by the Minister of State for Colonial Affairs when we had discussed the very interesting and important question as to how far Ministers would allow Questions to be answered in the House in regard to the activities of the Corporation. The Minister of State said:If hon. Members think it desirable"—which, of course, we did; that was the whole basis of our argument—we"—that is the Government—will go into the matter before the Report stage to see whether it is possible in any way for the scope of Questions or of discussion to be widened. I cannot at present say more than that. We will go into the matter and see what can be done, and I hope that the Committee will accept this assurance. We are anxious to answer all the Questions, as we wish the House to have all the information which it can get.Later, the Secretary of State for the Colonies himself said:I think we were right in saying that all we can say at the moment is that we will look at the matter again and make a statement on the Report stage."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th February, 1951; Vol. 484, cc. 2154–5, 2159.]Had we not put down the Amendment, there would be no conceivable possibility of the right hon. Gentleman carrying out his promise. He should certainly be very indebted to us for our vigilance.
I admit, therefore, that to some extent the Amendment is put down as a peg on which the right hon. Gentleman can make the statement, but he could not have made it until after I had moved my Amendment. What we had in mind was to give the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity of saying exactly what the Government intended about how the future activities of the Corporation were to be brought before the House and whether Questions could be put.
We suggest that one of the ways in which the position might be met is that, as the Amendment says, at the end of each quarter of the financial year the Corporation should make a report to the Minister, who should lay it before Parliament. I admit that in public bodies like this it would be unusual to have a quarterly report before Parliament; and 508 some hon. Members might feel they were getting too much information on the subject. On the other hand, monthly returns are made by Ministers on a variety of topics—the Housing Returns, for example, are monthly reports to the House.
It would be nothing strange to have a quarterly report, although I would not myself press for that if we could get from the right hon. Gentleman a reply which we consider satisfactory to the general question at issue. If he does this, I do not think it would be necessary to continue with the Amendment. If he does not do so, then something of this kind would be desirable, because if he cannot answer questions, then, at any rate, a quarterly report to Parliament would tend to show us the danger signals if there are to be any dangers in the road which the Corporation are to pursue. It is to give that opportunity to the right hon. Gentleman, for which I am sure he is very grateful to us, that we have put down the Amendment.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Gammans
I support my right hon. and gallant Friend, but not only on the question of the extent to which there will be wider scope for the House to put Parliamentary Questions to the Minister. On an earlier occasion the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of essence. and gave us to understand that in future we should not be asked to vote global sums in the dark for unspecified schemes but that particular Estimates would be laid before the House for each scheme. Therefore, I hope that when the Minister replies he will answer not only the point raised by my right hon. and gallant Friend but also the question in regard to the Estimates.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
It is, of course, my intention to make a statement about both these questions, and I was waiting for a favourable opportunity to do so. I am sure that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman realises that on this question about the admissibility of Parliamentary Questions there is no form of Amendment which I myself could have put down, nor could I have done so on the question of the form in which the Estimates would be presented. I have sought advice and I gathered that the appropriate stage at which to make a statement might be the 509 Third Reading of the Bill, which we propose to take tonight, but since the matter has already been raised and is relevant to both the questions asked, I will make the statement now.
I agree that when we discussed the matter earlier I said that it was my desire to keep the House as fully and as regularly informed as possible about the operation of the Scheme. I also made the point that it seemed to me—but about this I wanted time to consider further the statement I should make—that the fact that now, as from 1st April, subject to the Bill becoming an Act, the Scheme will be serviced by annual Votes, would affect the admissibility of Questions and, in my view, would widen the scope of Questions and the responsibility of the Minister to answer them. I have, therefore, given full consideration to that, and from that further consideration I should like to make this statement.
I remind hon. Members of the position generally as far as Questions relating to public Corporations are concerned. This was stated by my right hon. Friend the Lord President on 17th December, 1948, in the Adjournment debate on Questions relating to the Overseas Corporation, when my right hon. Friend said:…the only sensible working rule is that Ministers should answer where they assume responsibility, and not, save in the exceptional circumstances contemplated by Mr. Speaker's Ruling, on matters of 'public importance,' where the responsibility has been left to the Corporation. If the House thinks that Ministers should assume wider responsibilities, it has other methods of bringing this home to them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th December, 1948; Vol. 459, c. 1546.]Elsewhere in the same speech, my right hon. Friend mentioned four categories where Questions would be admissible. First, there were Questions relating to the discharge by the Ministers concerned of specific statutory obligations relating to the Corporations. Second, Questions arising from the obligation to consult Colonial Governments and to have regard to the interests of the employees in Colonial Territories. Third, Questions to the Secretary of State for the Colonies about the discharge by Colonial Governments of their general responsibilities which may bear upon the activities of the Corporations; and fourth, Questions under the "public importance" rule.
510 Questions under these headings will, of course, continue to be admissible to me. but the effect of the Bill will be to broaden the field of Ministerial responsibility in respect of the Overseas Food Corporation—notably as a result of the powers I shall have in connection with their finance. As a consequence I shall have to concern myself with many matters which were previously left entirely to the Overseas Food Corporation, and I shall be answerable to Parliament on them.
At the same time, I am anxious not to mislead the House, and I should make it clear that what I have said does not mean that I shall be prepared to answer Questions on every detail of management just as if the Corporation were a Government Department. I have no intention of interfering in the details of the Corporation's day-to-day operations and administration, and I do not think that the House would wish me to do so. Certainly I can imagine nothing which would be more likely to promote indecision, lack of initiative and delay than that the men on the spot in Africa should have constantly to ask themselves before they took a decision whether they could be sure that I would agree with it.
The House will not expect me to say exactly where, in practice, the line will be drawn between matters for which I shall be prepared to assume Parliamentary responsibility and those for which the Overseas Food Corporation will alone be responsible. I have indicated broadly what the position will be. The details will obviously have to emerge in practice. However, I can assure the House that I mean to take a broad view of my responsibilities to Parliament. As I have said, I am anxious to keep Parliament fully informed, and I do not think that hon. Members will have any reasonable grounds for complaining that they cannot obtain the information which Parliament needs in order to carry out its responsibilities in regard to the Overseas Food Corporation under the new arrangements.
The form of Estimates submitted to Parliament will consist of a one-line Vote, possibly a separate Vote from the Colonial and Middle Eastern Services Vote, though that has not yet been finally decided. This one-line Vote will comprise a sub-head for expenditure and another sub-head for receipts. The Vote itself will not be supported by detail, but particulars of the proposed expenditure and 511 anticipated revenue will be given in an appendix to the Estimates. This would permit Members of the House to ask questions at will on all the provisions of the Estimates. I hope that what I have said will satisfy hon. Members opposite.
§ Mr. Gammans
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us a little more about the Estimates? Does the proposal mean that the Estimates will be broken down under headings of salaries, equipment and so on? How far shall we be able to go?
§ Mr. Griffiths
It will be a single-line Vote and will comprise a sub-head for expenditure and a sub-head for receipts. It is my proposal to provide with it an appendix, and in that appendix there will be further details about the sums which are in the sub-heads. I understand that if the Estimates with the one-line Vote and the appendix are published together, the House will have them before it at the same time and this will make the widest possible range of questions permissible in debate.
§ Mr. Selwyn Lloyd
With reference to the right hon. Gentleman's statement as to his view of responsibility for answering Questions, will he accept the view of the House that we should receive more information about the new Scheme?
§ Mr. Griffiths
Yes, indeed. The only qualification I have to make is that it will be serviced by Vote. That means that I shall have a wider responsibility, but at the same time we would not expect to be questioned about all kinds of tiny details.
§ Sir R. Glyn
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain one thing? It is a one-line Vote with two sub-heads, and he said that he would add an appendix.
§ Sir R. Glyn
The ordinary custom in presenting an Estimate is to have an explanatory note on the opposite page to the Vote. Is there to be any difference here?
§ Mr. Griffiths
I gather that the way in which I suggest it should be done is the best way to meet the purpose we have in mind, which is to give the House an opportunity of discussing the matter in greater detail. That is the advice I have been given.
§ Sir R. Glyn
The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is unusual to have an appendix to a one-line Vote. If that were done in the case of every one-line Vote, the volume would be enormous, if it were adopted as ordinary Government procedure.
§ Captain Crookshank
I am very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman, as I am sure my hon. Friends are, for the statement he has made, the gist of which is that there will be greater latitude in the control the Minister has over the number of Questions he will be prepared to answer. That seemed very satisfactory and the right hon. Gentleman has shown willing. That is as much as we can expect at this stage.
On the more technical point regarding Estimates, while I see that what the right hon. Gentleman has been trying to do is to produce something in the Estimates in such a form that it will be possible for us to ask more detailed Questions, if he or his successor at any moment said, "I cannot answer that, that is not my concern," hon. Members could turn to the appendix and say "Yes, there is an item in the appendix" and therefore they would have grounds for arguing with him. As my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Sir R. Glyn) said, it would be cumbersome if this became the universal practice, but, on the other hand, this is an exceptional case at present. If I might advise the House, the best way would be to leave the matter where the right hon. Gentleman has taken it today.
After all, we are not laying down the form of Estimates for the rest of time. The Estimates Committee and the Public Accounts Committee from time to time make recommendations about alterations in the layout, and I am sure that those Committees would consider this on the purely technical side of the value of the Estimates. The right hon. Gentleman did not have only that in mind, but was trying also to find some way in which the House as a whole could find pegs on which to hang the Questions, and I think the right hon. Gentleman was trying to meet the case made on the Committee stage. We are very grateful to him. My Amendment gave the right hon. Gentleman an oppor- 513 tunity of making a statement on the Report stage, which he has done very nicely, and I do not propose to carry the matter further.
§ Captain Duncan
This year we shall not see this new form of Estimates. Can the right hon. Gentleman in some way put forward the form of the Estimates so that we shall know what sort of Questions we can ask, as otherwise we shall not know until March of next year?
§ Amendment negatived.