HC Deb 16 July 1952 vol 503 cc2293-300

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the White Fish Authority (General Levy) Regulations Confirmatory Order, 1952 (S.I., 1952, No. 1077), dated 29th May, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th May, be annulled. I say at once that no objection is taken to this Order on its merits. Objection is taken on the form of the Order. This Prayer has been put down because the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments has drawn the attention of the House to this Statutory Instrument as one calling for elucidation. I am sure that it will be agreed that it is just as well that the House of Commons should be continually vigilant both as to the form as well as to the substance of delegated legislation.

I say in parenthesis that I think that we should all agree that there has been a noticeable improvement in recent years on the part of those responsible for framing statutory instruments in that they have regard to the points which have been raised from time to time in the Special Reports of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments. The House can congratulate itself that far more care is taken nowadays about the form of this delegated legislation than was once the case.

The point that arises on this Order is purely a technical one, although the Order itself is not unimportant. A great many hon. Members take a keen interest in the activities of the White Fish Authority which, it will be remembered, was set up by the last Government under the Sea Fish Industry Act, 1951. One of the duties of the White Fish Authority is to ensure that in the interest of the consumer there shall be a plentiful supply to the public of white fish at reasonable prices.

In pursuance of its powers the White Fish Authority has the right, after due consultation with the interests concerned, and after due publication. to make schemes for the re-organisation of the industry. This power is conferred by Section 6 of the Act. The scheme, which is the subject of this Order, is made under Section 6. The scheme itself is set out in the Schedule to the Order. I said that it was not unimportant. It will be observed that, among other things, the scheme imposes a charge. It is, as the Explanatory Note says, a charge payable to the White Fish Authority of one halfpenny for every stone of white fish landed on first-hand sale.

When the Act was passed by this House it had no application to Northern Ireland, and Members from Northern Ireland, and others, including my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing), are properly jealous of the specific interests of Northern Ireland. Therefore, in the ordinary way it would come as a surprise to those reading this Statutory Instrument imposing this charge to find that it applies not only to England, Wales and Scotland but also to Northern Ireland.

The legal position is that under Section 20 of the Act power is given to the Secretary of State to extend the scope of the Act to Northern Ireland. In fact, an Order was made on 4th October last year, being No. 1797 of 1951, which did extend the scope of the Act to Northern Ireland, although I dare say that the significance of that Statutory Instrument probably escaped notice at the time, because it was about the time of the Dissolution of the last Parliament and the preparations for the General Election which resulted in this Parliament.

Until that Order was made, the Act did not apply to Northern Ireland. Now, we have this Order before us, and it takes the form of confirming a scheme which the Minister has made, and we find that, in fact, it applies to Northern Ireland.

The drafting offence which those responsible for the Order have made is that they have not thought fit, in promulgating the Order, to recite the authorities which justify them in making the Order. It is, of course, a cardinal principle that, when a Minister of the Crown purports to exercise powers of delegated legislation, he should recite in the Order the specific powers which enable him to make the Order. The reason for that principle is the convenience of the general public, so that the public may know, without a great deal of tedious research, whether or not the Government Department concerned is entitled to make the Order in the form in which it is made.

The defect in this Order in question is that, in the first recital, it uses the objectionable phrase and of all other powers enabling them in that behalf,… That is a phrase upon which Ministers ought not to rely if, in fact, they have some specific authority enabling them to make the Order in question. In this particular case, it would have been quite easy, appropriate and normal for the Minister, in making this confirmatory Order, to recite the Order of October last which extended the ambit of the Act to Northern Ireland, and the Select Committee have drawn attention to the matter for that reason—not because it is a serious matter, but because the Select Committee exists to maintain vigilance in this matter and to correct slipshod drafting where it occurs.

I think I ought to add, in conclusion, that a memorandum which was submitted to the Select Committee was signed by somebody on behalf of the Minister, and that it did admit the charge which I have tried to explain, and expressed some regret. I think the whole House would agree that, if the Minister is willing to confirm that expression of regret and to give us an assurance that his own Department, and, I have no doubt, other Departments, in the light of the admission which he has made, will see fit to mend their ways in future, we should be satisfied.

10.19 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I beg to second the Motion.

I am sure that you will be very happy, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, as the very distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee, to know that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) is following your example in bringing to the notice of the House this Order which the Select Committee has found to be in need of elucidation.

This is a minor point, but I wish to make this comment. In the memorandum which the Department submitted to the Select Committee it is very refreshing to find that the Department did not try to argue their way out of the difficulty, but said at once and admitted that the Order would have been clearer and more complete if reference to the Order in Council had been made. And—which is unusual for a Department—they even went on to regret that this was not done. In those circumstances I am sure that the whole House would be very willing and anxious to hear the Minister repeat the explanation and apology which his Department have already made in their memorandum.

10.21 p.m.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

Before the Minister replies, I should like to put one point on Regulations made by the White Fish Authority. We on this side of the House take great responsibility for setting up the White Fish Authority and we are anxious that the early Regulations in the career of that body shall be clear and explicit. Therefore we regret that there has been a little slip on this occasion. I am sure that my hon. Friends and I do not want to press this point unduly.

It is a matter of congratulation to us that we have been able to find the opportunity for the present Government to put this Order into operation. We hope it will do a great deal for the white fish industry. and we regret that the Government have made this mistake in this Regulation so early in the career of the Authority.

10.22 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

In reply to the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) and the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. F. Willey), I will begin by agreeing that we have made a mistake. Indeed, it would be very difficult for me to do otherwise in the face of the memorandum from the Department admitting that we have made it. But, if I may, I should like to justify our stand in asking the House not to accept the Prayer but to confirm the Order, because I submit that in respect of the omission to which hon. Members have called attention the Order is legally in order.

The hon. Member for Islington, East called attention to the phrase in the preamble to the Order which states: …and of all other powers enabling them in that behalf,… Although it is not very precise, nevertheless, as it refers to the master Act— the Sea Fish Industry Act, 1951—from which the Order in Council flowed, it puts the matter legally in order.

Quite apart from the practical point of view, I submit that the general public and the fishing industry in particular knew what was happening. As the House knows, the process by which this Order is made is that the White Fish Authority make their proposal, which they have to publish in certain gazettes. It appeared in certain additions in newspapers in Northern Ireland. Therefore there is no doubt that certain Northern Ireland interests in fact did know about it; and the proposal to extend it to Northern Ireland by means of an Order in Council was initiated by Resolution of both Houses of Parliament in Northern Ireland.

Mr. George Brown (Belper)

The hon. Gentleman referred to publication in the newspapers in Northern Ireland. I understood him to say that this proposal had to be published. Will he say in which newspapers it was published?

Mr. Nugent

I would not have made that assertion unless I had furnished myself in advance with the names of the papers. I hope I shall not disappoint the right hon. Gentleman by telling him which they were. It has been published in the "Belfast Telegraph," the "Northern Whig," the "Irish News" and the "Belfast News-Letter." I think that the right hon. Gentleman can be assured that publication was adequate.

I might also say that the definition in paragraph 4 of the Schedule does specifically allude to the United Kingdom in distinction to Great Britain, to which the previous Order referred. Further, in the Explanatory Note it states that the Order applies to the United Kingdom and not to Great Britain. I think it is clear that in law the Order is sound, although it would have been improved in form by citing the Order in Council.

Those who might be interested were properly informed, and I would, therefore, ask the House to give the Order their approval.

10.26 p.m.

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

I am very glad that the Select Committee called attention to this matter, which I think the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) was quite right to raise. I would go a little further with regard to this matter. In the last Parliament I frequently protested against the use in statutory instruments of the words, "all other powers enabling." I think that a good many hon. Members on both sides of the House take the view that the Department should cite in the text of the instrument all the powers upon which they intend to rely, and should not be permitted to rely upon any other powers. What has been said tonight should be taken to heart by the Department, and I would urge the House to consider carefully the question whether it is fitting that words such as, "all other powers enabling," should be used in any statutory instrument.

10.27 p.m.

Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)

I, for one, hope that the Government will not take the view of the hon. Baronet. Normally those words are put in in order that if there are any other powers the Department should be covered in general, and if very busy Departments have to hunt for all the possible powers there may be which enabled them to make a particular Order I am afraid they will be kept very busy and the printers will have more work to do than we ought to give them.

Sir J. Mellor

Does not the right hon. Gentleman consider that before making an instrument the Department should know what are the powers upon which they propose to rely? Is it right to have an omnibus expression of this kind in order that, if the Order is challenged, the Department should be able to find some power which enables them to make it?

Mr. E. Fletcher

I do not think that there would be any objection to the words, "all other powers enabling," as a safeguard in case anything has been omitted, but I do not think that it should go out from this House that the use of those words should cover up an omission of some specific authority which is known to the Department concerned and which ought to have been recited in the Order. I gather that my right hon. Friend certainly did not suggest that. I am not sure what the hon. Baronet feels about it, but if those words are used at all they should not be used to cover up some omission which there should not have been.

In view of the handsome apology which the Minister has made, and of the fact that nobody on this side of the House wants to hold up the operation of an Order which we regard as meritorious, and which is bringing to fruition the work of the Labour Government in carrying out a very valuable Act of Parliament with regard to the White Fish Authority, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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