HC Deb 12 June 1952 vol 502 cc527-35

Amendment proposed, in page 3, line 27, leave out from "as," to the end of line 29, and insert: may be reasonably necessary for securing the intended relief from congestion or over population in the area to be relieved and the making of any necessary provision for accommodation for carrying on any industrial or other activities and the provision of any necessary additional public services in the receiving district:"—[Mr. Leslie Hale.]

Question again proposed, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Bill."

10.1 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

On Tuesday we wasted a great deal of time on this highly complicated Bill, because the Ministers in charge were quite unable to answer practically any of the questions which were put to them. I hope we shall not have this repeated tonight, and that there will be a Law Officer present who can deal with these complicated questions as they arise. Are we going to have a Law Officer present? There are no differences in principle between either side of the House on this Bill. We are trying to improve it and get it to work, but the draft is highly complicated.

What are the effects of the various provisions? The Ministers certainly did not know on Tuesday, and their complete inability to answer these questions caused endless delay. Surely they have learned something meanwhile and are going to have somebody who can answer the questions. May we have an answer?

Since the Minister in charge refuses to answer, I would ask leave to move the adjournment of this debate until a Law Officer of the Crown can find it convenient to be here and assist us. Most of the time on Tuesday we were in Committee, but you, Mr. Speaker, were here a certain amount of the time, and I feel you must have realised how much time was being wasted, because we could not get an answer to the question of what was the purpose of certain words in various Clauses.

On Clause 2 I asked eight specific questions as to the purpose of various words. Nobody could give any answer at all. Therefore, I ask your permission, Mr. Speaker, to move the adjournment of this debate until some convenient time when a Law Officer can be present to assist us.

Mr. Speaker

I cannot accept that Motion. The fact that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not agree with the answers he has received does not entitle him to move the adjournment of the debate.

Mr. Paget

My trouble is that I did not get any answer of any sort, kind or description. I asked why words were there, and the answer was complete silence. I asked what was the purpose of this Clause and why it was wanted, and nobody could tell me because nobody knew. A Bill like this must contain a series of legal points, and I submit that it is most unfair on the House that we should have to deal with this eminently legal Bill without any legal assistance.

Mr. Speaker

Every Bill necessarily involves legal points, but laymen with instruction have frequently been found capable of dealing with them.

Mr. Paget

The misfortune was that the particular laymen in charge of this Bill proved themselves on Tuesday utterly incompetent either to explain or understand their own Bill, and that is what caused so much trouble.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and learned Gentleman has made his point, and I have ruled upon it. I hope that he will now address himself to the Amendment.

Mr. Paget

I do not know if we can now get some statement from the Minister. The debate on this particular Amendment was continued to the time of Adjournment in order that the Minister might get some instructions on it and might consider the matter. His view of the Clause was that it referred to matters other than those set out in the Amendment. Can the Minister now tell us whether he has received further instructions on this matter?

Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)

I hesitate to join in this debate. My name has been on all the Amendments—at any rate from this side of the House—which have been discussed. I did not take any part in the debate, because I felt that the Minister had the support of so many of his hon. Friends who wished to speak that it would have been ungracious for hon. Members on this side not to give him that assistance which many Ministers have lacked in piloting a Bill through the House. For that reason I have not yet intervened in this matter.

I had the good fortune of hearing the debate on Tuesday, and I do hope that the Minister will seriously reconsider this point. I understand the argument is that this Bill should be passed because the Minister has had no hand in composing it. If that is the argument in its favour, I respectfully suggest that it is one which should commend itself to all sides of the House.

But however eminent may be those who composed this Bill—and on whichever side of the House they sit—there is no reason why humble backbenchers should not try to improve it. The difficulty in which we find ourselves is that words which are put in by very eminent Ministers—some of them almost as eminent as the right hon. Gentleman in charge of this Measure—have often been interpreted by the courts as having quite different meanings from those intended by their composers.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House will remember that once, in regard to a former Cinematograph Act, we inserted various provisions dealing with safety and, as a consequence, the whole legal fabric of censorship in the industry was built up. In the same way, the strongest assurances were given by a very distinguished Attorney-General—Lord Hewart, who afterwards became the Lord Chief Justice—that under no circumstances could the Official Secrets Act be interpreted in a certain way; and yet, when he later sat as Lord Chief Justice, he interpreted the Act in the very sense in which he had assured the House, in perfectly good faith, that it could not be interpreted. This shows that even the best people, on studying an Act afresh, find that it bears a meaning which at first sight they supposed it did not.

What the Minister is trying to do is to put a term on the good which can be done under this Bill. Why should he do that? If he does not like our particular Amendments, there is another place which contains a number of very able people— in fact, the majority of the Cabinet—and which could be very profitably occupied in thinking out possibly better forms of words than we have here.

I am quite certain that my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West (Mr. Hale) would be prepared to withdraw the Amendment if the Minister could give us some assurance that the matter would be looked at again. If one looks at the Clause as it stands one can understand the phrase: … as it may appear to him to be expedient… It would be quite all right if it stopped short there, because that would allow the Minister all forms of discretion, but it goes on: "to impose for securing…." If one stopped there and inserted the words "town development," again the Clause would read perfectly logically and would cover everything in Clause 1.

The Minister spoke about this in a very haphazard way and told us that everything was in Clause 1, which deals with town development. Here we are dealing with relief from over-population, which is very necessary but very limiting. Why can we not have town development here in the same way as in Clause 1? If the Minister does not like our wording, would he consider amending it by saying: "As it may appear to him to be expedient to impose, for securing town development"? What is the objection to those words?

Everybody wants to get the Bill in the best form, and it seems ridiculous to spend a great deal of time arguing on each of these points, which cannot make any difference. They cannot make the Bill any worse, and they might make it better. It was hon. Gentlemen opposite who passed the Official Secrets Act—at any rate a Government presided over by the Prime Minister, whatever the actual party was. It was passed in good faith, but it has been interpreted in entirely different ways. The Minister should make sure that the words in the Clause are foolproof. The words I have proposed will cover his meaning and avoid the limitation of his own words. I agree that his words occur again, but perhaps they could be altered later on. Let us have some statement of policy from hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Later we shall come to the question of the German Debts, Which is bound to detain the House for some time. We ought therefore to get rid of these Amendments urgently, and we could do so if we had the co-operation of the Minister. I have not addressed the House on this Bill before, but I have been associated with many of the Amendments. I make an appeal to the right hon. Gentleman, but if short, sharp, crisp arguments do not appeal to him, some of my hon. Friends will be forced to put their argument at greater lengths. I hope that will not be necessary, and that we can quickly leave the Bill better than we found it and can all catch our last trains home.

Mr. Speaker

The Question is——

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West) rose——

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member moved the Amendment and is entitled to speak again.

Mr. Hale

I have the right and the duty to reply, in view of the course that the debate has taken. I do not associate myself with some of the criticisms made by some of my hon. Friends, that the Minister does not understand the Bill, which is ungenerous. Very few people understand the Bill in all its details, some of which are virtually incomprehensible.

Let us face the issue between us. The right hon. Gentleman replied to my remarks by saying that there was very little difference between us, and that the words to which we object were really legal words. And so my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) got up, as luck would have it, just as the time was passing to the moment for the automatic adjournment and suggested that there should be given a chance for the Law Officers to have a look at this and of thinking what it does mean.

I really should have thought—though I would not claim to be an expert on legal or sartorial matters—that when ray hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton, both of them men of the highest standing at the Bar, express their real doubts about the meaning of these words, the right hon. Gentleman would have carried put the elementary duty, as a matter of courtesy to them, of saying, at least, that he had given further consideration to this matter and had con-stilted the Law Officers of the Crown about it.

10.15 p.m.

What, in fact, has he done? He has not even troubled to intervene at all. He may say that he has exhausted his right to speak. But the Parliamentary Secretary has not. I should have thought that the Parliamentary Secretary could have intervened. Moreover, I am perfectly certain that the House would willingly accord the right hon. Gentleman the right to intervene if he felt so inclined. We are anxious to get on, but I am perfectly certain that, on a matter of this importance, the House would be perfectly willing to hear the right hon. Gentleman again.

He went on to say this: The hon. Gentleman doubted whether I had been well advised by those whose duty it is to advise me. I shall refer mainly to that point, because I have absolute sympathy with what he wants to do. Industrial development is one of the main purposes which can be assisted by, the town developments here contemplated"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th June, 1952; Vol. 502, c. 158.] We have now reached this stage that there is no issue of principle between us at all. The Minister says, "I have at heart precisely the purpose that is envisaged in these words."

What is the reason, then, for his not accepting this Amendment? His reason for not accepting this Amendment is confined to one proposition, and to one proposition only: he says he thinks the Words are already covered by the words in parentheses in Clause 1. He referred to those words; In this Act the expression town development' means development in a county district (or partly in one such district and partly in another) which will have the effect, and is undertaken primarily for the purpose, of providing accommodation for residential purposes"— and then come the words in the brackets to which the fight hon. Gentleman referred— (with or without accommodation for the carrying on of industrial or other activities, and with any public services and other incidentals needed) the provision whereof will relieve congestion or over-population elsewhere. We come to this. It may be that the right hon. Gentleman is right. It may be that at some future date the courts will say he is right. But what harm is there in saying he is right? What harm is there in accepting this Amendment? Why is he spending all this time in resisting this Amendment, which certainly clarifies the position, which he says he agrees with, which he says he does not complain about in principle at all? Why not accept it? I have said, and my hon. and learned Friends have said, we will not argue about a word here or about a word there, if the right hon. Gentleman says that in another place we could have another form of wording so as to make this clear. There is no objection to that at all.

It really is not good enough in these circumstances for the Minister to try to suggest that time is being uselessly wasted. It is not being wasted by us, but is being wasted by him. He made it perfectly clear in an earlier suggestion that this Amendment could readily be accepted.

I have not the slightest intention— because I do want to get on—of recapitulating the arguments I made in my opening observations—not the slightest intention. I do not wish to do so— though it would be fair to say that I see here now a lot of people who did riot display much interest before. I am very glad that interest is manifesting itself— and, indeed, even apparently expanding. It is a very good thing and a very helpful thing in a democracy, and in Parliament, that we should have bigger attendances on these occasions when we are trying to improve a useful and important Bill.

But I do ask the right hon, Gentleman, finally, just this: is he going to say to the House that he just does not care, that he is not taking any notice—not rioting down the arguments at all—that he has not taken any advice upon it, that he proposes to leave it thus? Or has he taken advice? And if he has, why could he not have intervened long ago and said so? He really could have saved all this. Could not he have said, "I have seen the Law" Officers and the Law Officers confirm my view"?

The right hon. Gentleman must face this as a substantial argument because, as I said before, the whole tenor of the rules about legal interpretations is based on the general proposition that if one opens with a series of general words and then subsequently limits them, it is the limitation which prevails. That is the whole tenor of a series of decisions. I should be out of order in referring to a later Amendment in the name of the right hon. Gentleman but it is certainly another example of an attempted clarification which reiterates this limitation which leaves out the question of industrial development. If one gets in paragraph after paragraph a whole series of references to general development, but with no provisions for industrial development, it is exceedingly important that we should have it stated clearly.

It is not necessary for me to say any more, because the right hon. Gentleman has accepted the argument. He accepts the proposition that there is a need for industrial development. He accepts the proposition that there must be provision for industrial development where required. He accepts the proposition that there must be financial aid for industrial development. Yet he says quite obstinately, "In my view the Clauses cover it." I say to him with complete sincerity that I have very real doubt whether they do. So, we have sought to clarify, we have sought to amend, and we have sought to improve. I should have thought we would have had more co-operation in our effort to make a useful improvement on the lines which the Minister has frequently said he has in mind.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

In the long debate which we have had in Committee and on the Report stage, I have been treated with so much courtesy by the hon. Gentlemen charged with the opposition that I would not wish to be thought guilty of any discourtesy. In the three-quarters of an hour when we debated this on Tuesday I explained the purpose of Clause 3. It is a piece of machinery which allows the Minister to make conditions for the purpose of carrying the objectives set out in Clauses 1 and 2. I am advised—and I accept the advice, which seems to me to be sensible—that it would be wrong to use Clause 3, which is merely a piece of machinery for power to make conditions, to restate in another form, however admirable, the clearly stated objectives laid down in Clauses 1 and 2.

Since the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) says he is sincerely concerned about the dangers which might follow if we have made a mistake, I can assure him that we are certain from our information, which I must trust, and which indeed seems to me to follow common sense, that it would be wrong to use Clause 3, which is a machinery power of making conditions, to restate the objectives laid down in Clauses 1 and 2—which, incidentally, the House has already passed.

Mr. Bing

Will the right hon. Gentleman not deal with the argument? I do not think he has really seized the argument we have tried to address to him. It is not that this Clause is being used for restating, but that the machinery Clause is being used for a limitation. Will he not deal at any rate with the argument that he should stop at the word "expedient"?

Mr. Macmillan

I would have been glad to do so had that been the Amendment. As it is not the Amendment, it seems to me that I can hardly deal with it.

Amendment negatived.